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The best hotel in Iganga – smudging the line between mishap and miracle

The best hotel has holes in the floors, holes around the fixtures and an unexpected hole in the sink. There are holes in the bed covers, around outlets and in the ceiling where the light should be. The window itself is actually just a hole with a frame stuck somewhat inside of it – you don’t open this window, no, you simply remove the frame from its hole as instructed when sitting in an airplane exit row.

But a hole in a wall is still most of a wall between you and the town of Iganga, which doesn’t even get credit for being on my top ten least favorite places to be. In fact, while I lived there at one time, it’s a city I rarely talk about and would never recommend – to anyone really – ever except for the six unfortunates who I brought with me to sample the city’s finest.

The last 18 hours had taken a toll on us all, and we needed the day to stop –the only reason Iganga counted as a good idea. In the end the tally included five cars, our luggage, a birthday, some vacay, and over a decade of goodwill.

But in exchange we got a few flavorful vignettes, drank champagne coffee with new friends, hosted an impromptu dance party at a street-side squeeze, ignored a kayak competition and learned a few lessons we’ll not easily forget.

If the devil is in the details then maybe we should be looking for miracles in the cracks. It’s what happened here anyways.

Trust and Verify

At Crop to Cup Coffee Importers we subscribe to the mantra of ‘trust, and verify’. These are the two legs on which relationships stand. And any good partnership needs two legs to get off the ground, to stand up to the winds of change, and to move forward year over year.

With trust, verification becomes an easy ritual. Without it, verification becomes an adversarial audit. With verification, trust is built step by step. But without checks there can be no balance.

This is a story of our oldest relationship – with a group called Bulaago in Mt. Elgon. A place where trust runs deep like the rudder of a tall ship, allowing us to ignore the holes in this old sail.

Looking back, I should not have been so surprised that the boat capsized.

Bulaago Coffee Farmers Association – Jan 2019

“The rains are coming, and we have to go now”. It was true, that rain was threatening, but that wasn’t the real reason we cut the meeting short. It is January of 2019 and I’m up visiting the Bulaago Coffee Farmers Association (BUCOFA) in Mt. Elgon, Uganda.

It started well, with greetings and introductions, gifts exchanged of passion fruit for branded bags that proudly printed “Bulaago coffee”. So far so good – with 14 years under our belt, this visit was meant to be routine, a repeat of our annual to bi-annual visit. But then the storm came.

Missing for 2 Years

“You are lost”, started one farmer. Not surprising – this is a common way of saying ‘we missed you’. But then “you have been gone now for over two years, why haven’t you bought our coffee?” This bristled, as I pointed to the sales report which showed what we bought, how much more we’d need, and what we’d done to market their coffee over the past year. I pointed to the guest book that showed my last visit in November of 2017, complete with signature and the comment ‘your coffee is as sweet as your hospitality – thank you for sharing both’. This wasn’t what I expected – things were getting interesting. I moved closer, curious as to where this would go next.

Straight down was where. “Our store has been empty now for two years. We have been on our own, and while we are glad that (Mr. X) brought you here, we only found out yesterday you were coming, and I wonder – why are you here?”

Mr. X was the son of the village elder, a muzee (respected man), and a long-time friend. He had known about our visit for months, but apparently had not told anyone until the day before.

Just earlier that day we had paid Mr. X to rent chairs and a tent, for food and for a truck to bring all of this up-mountain. And then another payment for another truck when that first one failed. But on arrival, it was clear that there were no chairs, no tent, no food, and no truck.  This money had been eaten.

So how did such a good thing go so wrong?

Looking back the reasons are clear, and I know better. So, the blame is on me.

First, I’d accidentally chosen to visit on a market day, a day when the average farmer moves down mountain to sell non-coffee goods. This left only politicians and board members to attend our meeting.

Secondly, I’d been lax, negligent. I’d not seen any meeting minutes from BUCOFA in over a year and hadn’t asked for them. Yet minutes were the only way we knew that messages got down to the farmer.

You see there is no cell reception up here, and no one with a smartphone either. So, WhatsApp conversations and emails got printed down mountain in the town of Mbale, and brought up to be read during the group’s meetings. While there were elected positions for treasurer, secretary, and chairmen, effectively the power went through those who could afford to move between the mountain and Mbale. And, as it turned out, this was really just one individual.  You guessed it, Mr. X.

Thirdly, I’d failed to adjust to some seemingly unconnected changes. For example, X’s father had fallen ill the year prior; when he moved down mountain, his son stepped into the role of village elder giving him influence without oversight and an invitation to take advantage if times ever got tough for him.

Zooming out to the macro, another change is that – for the first time – cherry prices beat parchment prices on the mountain. This was due to competition amongst washing stations that started sending trucks through Bulaago with cash in hand.


Versus the BUCOFA store, which could only pay once a week. Once a week our purchasing partner would bring a truck up to collect from the stores with cash to payout. Weekly can’t compete with cash on delivery. Even if second and third payments made selling to BUCOFA more profitable, these payments are delayed. The result was that BUCOFA could not compete for volumes from its own members.

So, three seasons ago, BUCOFA decided to close their store and mobilize coffee to one of four collection points set up by our purchasing partner. All Bulaago coffee was kept separate, and for two years we enjoyed unprecedented quality and traceability. Volumes and quality were up – we had come to celebrate, and to encourage even more participation.

But this also meant that BUCOFA, as an organization, was no longer relevant. They no longer needed to meet as regularly, or at all, and so went the way of all other Ugandan cooperatives …

Farmers in Uganda, even members of Coops, can sell to anyone, and they often do. Some coffee goes to pay school fees, to help out a relative or to cover debts from the offseason. Some go to that nice buyer you met last week in the market, and some to your brother’s wife’s father just to keep him happy. Sometimes buyers can approach a cooperative and pay a finder fee to buy from their primary societies. Then the next year they’ll cut out the coop as an unnecessary middle-man.

And the cooperative model – which pays less upfront and more of a profit share on the back –fails to compete. It’s a system that was brought by the British, but which had not worked since liberalization in ‘96. In this way coops and associations across Uganda have weakened and failed year over year, leaving places like Mt. Elgon a mountain of individual farmers, and not groups.

BUCOFA was set up as a primary society along the traditional cooperative model.  So, it seems, we had been hanging on to an old way of doing things. Coops and primary societies are officially dead – and so was BUCOFA they day they closed their store.

Two years passed, and I found myself meeting with a corpse of a cooperative.

“The rain is coming, and I need to get your customers down to safety”. This was how I ended our meeting, trying to save some face, and to buy some time while I worked all of this through.

As we piled into the van I encouraged BUCOFA to meet as a group, to talk, and decide what they wanted to do. In a typical zombie move, showing that they truly did not get it, they approached some of the roasters to ask if they could sell their coffee to them directly. Which would have been fine, if it was possible, but it was not possible, and in this context it was not fine.

On our drive down mountain I ran this through my mind, struggling to the conclusion that BUCOFA was no more. This had been our oldest relationship in coffee – the first group for whom we had bought drying trays and moisture meters, helped to open a bank account and maintain a truck. It was difficult to say goodbye, and impossible to give up. There are still so many good farmers, and so much good coffee, that it wasn’t fair for a few committee members to ruin over a decade’s worth of efforts.

So, I wondered, if not a primary society then what would come next? How can we communicate with and coordinate the efforts of nearly 400 farmers if they are not organized?

The answers didn’t come that day, but neither did the rains. We got down mountain starving, but safe. Our luggage, however, had moved on to Iganga. It looks like this long odd day was about to get a little longer.

You see, before Bulaago, on our way up mountain we had all three of our vans overheat. It was hot, but all three, at once – come on!  We ferried some folk up mountain using a pick-up, and others stayed behind to hitch.

Not Simple

I was one of those left behind to hitch. It was in this crack in our schedule that we found our first little miracle. While we sat around a group of kids came up to talk. While we were talking the shyest one started rubbing my friend’s arm. Now my friend has a hairy arm, so I motioned for him to pull down the neck of his shirt to show the kid what chest hair looked like.

He did, and the effect was as expected. Tremendous. Never had these kids seen so much body hair! Next, one of the bolder kids asked my friend to remove his sunglasses. Which he did, revealing green eyes to equally tremendous effect. The kid then said something simple that simply stuck with me.

“You are not simple’. No, my friend, he is not simple. And neither is coffee.

I have a brother who invokes the word ‘sonder’ as a reminder that everyone’s life is as complex as your own. It’s a nice reminder, and an interesting word*, but in this place and time I was thinking that some days are more complex than others.

This day, for example, was one that I couldn’t quite write off. For every bad turn we found something good. Being without cars in Kapchorwa let us spend all morning with a group called Zukuka Bora. While we didn’t get to set up shop in Bulaago we had all the equipment to help Zukuka Bora host their first cupping, which came to be a high point of the trip. They’re experimenting; we didn’t love the honey process, but were pleasantly confused by the coffee fermented using Champaign yeast.

Then, later that day, we got a private tour of Uganda’s largest washing station. Yes, we had to rent a mutatu to get there, ours having broken down, and yes we were held at the gate by an irate guard, angry at us for showing up after hours. And yes, the car did refuse to start – at first – when we were trying to leave. But in the cracks we got to know Deus, their washing station manager, including an interesting discussion about scaling up drying for natural and honey-processed lots.

Yes, we missed lunch with farmers in Bulaago. But were able to reconnect with an impressive young farmerpreneur named Dison. And yes, I just made a frakenword of ‘farmer’ and ‘entrepreneur’**.  Expect a separate blog on him, but I like seeing young independents like Zukuka and Dison as a growing alternative to the large mills, and our best chance at getting truly top lot coffees from this mountain.

Leaving Bulaago we chased our luggage to the greatest hotel in Iganga; and even this haul had a hidden gem in store.

This is where we introduce Clare, the heroine of our story and a true delight to have in the world of coffee. Her job is quality and promotions for the Uganda Coffee Development Authority – she’s the one behind Uganda’s Barista competitions, and who coordinates their participation in AFCA’s Taste of Harvest auction.  She’s a Q-grader, R-cupper and trainer extraordinaire.

More, she was the one responsible for getting us out of the day’s car mess and past the angry guard. She coordinated the reconnect with Dison, and felt the brunt of the Bulaago fail. And today was her birthday.

So the plan was to spring for a nice hotel and a bottle of red wine for her once we got to Jinja.

However, with the day so delayed it was already night, and us chasing our luggage to Iganga, this plan was no longer a possibility. So, instead, we stopped by a roadside cellphone shop turned bar. These juke joints are called Kafundas, which means ‘the squeeze’ because of how tightly they pack in people, DJs, and a pool table.

Buying beer for the group I looked up and to the far left of the bar. On the back of the top shelf sat a forgotten bottle, covered in dust. It was either sherry, or port oh, maybe – and tis would be a rarity – red wine. Red wine is all that Clare takes (no beer for her), and despite a few fancy hotels we hadn’t found a sip so far this trip. But here it was, hidden in the back of this loud-ass can be Kafunda, a dusty little miracle.

A miracle that blossomed as we navigated price (there was none so we had to make one up), glass (okay, I could buy a glass no problem – okay, this can be included in the price) and then – how to open the bottle without a corkscrew. And which climaxed with three grown men competing to see who could pull the cork using a nail – most attempts to pull the cork out using a nail led to smacking your own face. Which got them angry enough to try harder, leading to a harder smack, which got them angry enough to try faster. Until the next person stepped in to take over.

I ended up pushing the cork in, of course, and passing it around while dancing outside the Kafunda. So, in the end, Clare has something nice by which to remember her birthday.

A nice stop, but the day continued. We boarded back into the cars for the final leg to Iganga.

I heard a wilderness survival instruction say ‘all bleeding will stop. The question is what you are doing when it does’. I’ve applied this my life – ‘meetings will end, the question is how,’ or if I’m going through something unpleasant ‘It’s not when or if, but how I get through this’. For me the phrase ‘all bleeding stops’ is a reminder of ‘lets make the most’ with ‘manage against the curve’ and ‘this too shall change’.

I bring it up here as a way to skip over my night at the best hotel in Iganga.  We got through the night, and on to Jinja the next morning.

Jinja, the source of the Nile, and where we’d intended to spend the night before. We arrived too late to get on the water, but sat as sun set, looking over it, ignoring the kayak competition that was going on below, and toasting to the last 24 hours.

As the kayakers came up to the bar the band began to play, and I retreated to my tent for a little decompression. Just me and the monkeys, a beautiful view and a pint of beer. That’s where it came to me, the last little miracle of the day – a new way of looking at our work in Bulaago.

Bulaago Coffee Farmers Association (BUCOFA) was modeled after a Primary Society in a Cooperative. Primary Societies are one way, the old way, of centralizing a large coffee catch-basin. But if a centralized committee was no longer the way of the mountain, what would a decentralized model look like?

And was where an old memory brings back VSLAs to save the day.

Village Saving and Loan Associations (VSLA) to Address Bulaago Challenges

VSLAs (Village Saving and Loan Associations) are pretty unique to Uganda. Picture a lock-box with three keys, each given to members who live on far sides of the community. They can include 8 to 40 farmers who pool their incomes to lend out to members at an interest rate of around 10% (exceptional – especially when compared to traditional bank loans at 24% – 36%).  They are like SACCOs or savings groups found in other countries, but without external regulation. Plus, Uganda has a long tradition of these community-level savings groups who have flourished far from the banking grid.

There are VSLAs in place throughout Bulaago, and they already serve as a nexus for some types of training. The idea I had was that perhaps they could also serve as a means of mobilizing coffee, organizing community lots and facilitating communication without needing a central body. I checked this idea out by a few friends in the area who agreed VSLAs are strong, they meet monthly with full participation – including many women – and that they could be engaged to get more active in coffee.

The next miracle was waiting on the other end of one of these phone calls. I learned that USAID-funded nonprofits are actively supporting community savings groups through training and capacity building – allowing us to piggy-back on these efforts to strengthen VSLAs in Bulaago. In fact, plans for this are already in motion and we expect meetings to begin by end of March 2019.

I’m still sitting at my tent overlooking the Nile when the next Tetris piece drops into place. VSLAs can be combined with an idea imported from other parts – Youth Teams. Youth Teams are trained groups of unemployed men and women, 18 – 24 years old, who provide services to their community at a fee. If you can connect Youth Teams to VSLAs you now have a means of organizing coffee, improving quality, administering premiums and financing it all.

And so this is the 2019 – 2020 plan for Bulaago. We are free from the baggage of BUCOFA, and up one significantly ally in Clare who has agreed to help us in setting this program up. First step is a survey of VSLAs in Bulaago. With this we will have an entirely new way of communicating with and mobilizing coffee from farmers we’ve known now for over years.

I once read a t-shirt that said ‘never a bad day’. Feels hokey to me. But if you change it to read ‘never a bad day, only complex ones’ I’ll consider it.

I expect Clare’s survey and the VSLA program in Bulaago to progress day by day, with some days being more complex than others. I expect there to be more complex days for me as well, as we explore this new way of working. I’ll be in more direct touch with more farmers, for example, with a lot more that we could do in terms of mobile money, reinvested premiums, lot separation and quality improvement. But while I’m glad for what came out of the day described here, I don’t ever again expect to spend another night in Iganga. If I do then that means I’ve messed up again.

But if you so happen to find yourself in Iganga please let me know – I can recommend the very best hotel.

*The word Sonder doesn’t appear in English dictionaries, but seems to be a Saxon word that traveled through German (set apart) and French (to probe). The Saxon roots are interesting (to me at least) and can be found in the first response to the quora inquiry here. Today its use is tied to the Dictionary of Obscure Shadows which states:

Sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk. – Dictionary of Obscure Shadows

**or is that a portmanteau?

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