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Uganda: Harvest Update 2022-2023

Overview

For our 2022-2023 import, we worked to rebuild our presence and partnerships in Uganda, both of which suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic and continued consolidation of multinational exporters.

Uganda is the country where Crop to Cup began, and its teachings remain at the heart of our sourcing philosophy. Nearly two decades of work has centered around separating and scaling high quality lots to help grow the market for Ugandan specialty coffees. The last five years have been all about promoting young independent producers, and building the network of support they need to get their top lots through to export. Over the past two years exports were frustrated by quarantine, logistics and a lack of operating capital.

Ahead of the 2022-2023 harvest we assisted these partners to secure pre-crop financing, with built-in incentives for greater separation of lots, removing the last hurdle towards this being the year we all get to taste the fruits of their labor.

Sections:

  1. Timing
  2. Background
  3. Expectations
  4. Key Suppliers
  5. Challenges and Discussion
  6. Sourcing Strategy & Supplier Updates
  7. How to Get Involved


Uganda 2022-2023 import expectations, at a glance

We anticipate that

Import Volume will be significantly higher than the previous year;
Qualities will be higher;
Harvest will be early; and
Prices will be about the same or slightly lower than last year.

 


Timing

Peak HarvestOn the WaterShipments / Arrivals
Nov–Jan
Feb–Mar
Apr–May
Offer + PSS samples; initial bookingsExportArrival samples / Spot offers

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 Background

Crop to Cup began in Uganda; coffee from Uganda was our first import in 2007, and even after we expanded to Burundi in 2009 remained at the center of our work. Back then (and still now), robusta—native to Uganda and which grows wild around Lake Victoria—dominated coffee production in Uganda over Arabica four-to-one. The collapse of Arabica production following the failure of the International Coffee Organization in 1989 followed by a wave of coffee-wilt disease that decimated Arabica production reinforced reliance on Canephora, even as the price for robusta remained depressed versus Arabica internationally.

We saw opportunity, though, around Mt. Elgon—one of the two main Arabica growing regions in the country—where coffee would be collected into three local quality designations then trucked 8-12 hours to Kampala for evaluation. We worked with our partners to establish a fourth quality tier, called P4, to separate just the top 5% of coffee. The challenge of finding a market for these coffees led us to building a supply chain connecting buyers in the U.S. with suppliers in Uganda, which is how Crop to Cup was born. Ultimately, the success we had and our then-reliance on other logistics partners led to the interest from multinationals in the work we were doing—companies that operate with very different principles and sourcing philosophies from Crop to Cup. 

While at Crop to Cup, we work to build systems enabling us to pay higher prices by encouraging lot separation and quality practices, multinationals saw in Uganda an opportunity to buy coffee for large volume contracts at a lower price than from other origins, suppressing price and quality expectations through high-pressure tactics..

As a result, after the 2018 harvest, we made the decision to stop working with multinational-owned mills and exporters to get independent coffees to port.

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Expectations

Harvest in Uganda has already begun, earlier than usual. This consequently pushes forward our expectations for when we’ll ship.

Our volume of import will be greater and more diversified this year owing to the strength of the network we’ve built with the help of our local partners. Our suppliers will include independent associations of producers such as Mt. Elgon Coffee and Honey and Bex Coffee as well as small, values-aligned quality- and impact-focused private export channels like Mamboo Coffee Network and Funzo Coffee.

Because of the pre-crop financing made available in partnership with Root Capital and Progreso and incentives our partners are employing this year to promote separation of microlots, we expect quality this year will be higher than previous imports.

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Key Suppliers

SincePartner
2016Zukuku BoreSome of our first friends in Uganda, we’ve been advising the JENGA Community Development Organization since they started in specialty coffee in 2016. They specialize in small lot naturals, honeys and extended fermentation lots. Their volumes are small, however, and the challenges in milling / consolidation have prevented more than a handful of lots from making their way into the US over the years.
2020Mamboo Coffee NetworkDison is a lead farmer who has organized ‘elite’ farmer groups around multiple ‘collection stations’ and managers across the Kapchorwa region.  His expertise  is knowing this area, these farmers, and their coffees better than anyone else on the mountain.
2021Funzo CoffeeFormer colleagues of C2C founders from 18 years ago, Robert is an operations guru who jin ‘21  started his own exporter to trade with the relationships he’s built over the years. Funzo means ‘sharing’, which is his goal – sharing best practices and best coffees.
2022Rulindo Coffee NetworkFormer colleagues Michael Okech and James Bihe are agronomists and field organizers who brought the original Bulaago group together; this year they are reviving these relationships with their own exporter. They specialize in 1:1 farmer relationships, training and community mobilization.   
2022Benx CoffeeOur favorite Q-Cupper in Uganda, Clare Rwakatogoro left her post at the Uganda Coffee Development Authority to build on the  success of Benx labs by representing these relationships all the way through export. Her advantage is her reputation; farmers who have come to her over the years are the most committed to quality, and have come to trust her guidance. 
 Other Independents (to be determined):
Mt. Elgon Coffee and Honey (MECAH), Nsaaga Investments, Walaygo Farmers Association, Gorilla Summit Coffee.
Over the years we’ve kept up with a handful of small to mid-sized groups as they develop to the point of exporting specialty; expect some of them to come through this season. 

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Challenges and Discussion

After making the strategic decision to no longer work with multinationals in Uganda, we faced a number of challenges: disrupted cohesion among smallholder groups, a condition exacerbated by a lack of leadership among those groups; a lack of infrastructure; and lack of local and international partnerships. We organized around a number of younger groups that required a coalition of support from the farm to the cupping table—as well as coordination between. When the covid-19 pandemic hit, the government responded with a militant shut-down of all markets (where farmers would get the food they do not grow) and all buses (which is the way mail and samples get sent, and how farmers get to town) as well as a since-repealed 30% tax on internet usage that applied to WhatsApp, a key platform for farmers, agents and exporters to communicate with each other and buyers.

In our 15 years operating in Uganda and importing Ugandan coffee, we’d proven that there was a market for it, but with most coffees still processed by smallholders—who typically grow a small amount of coffee, often just 20-200 trees—qualities were at best inconsistent and typically cupped lower than we’ve hoped. 

The borders of Uganda, too, were porous, leading to problems in quality and traceability; when prices were higher in Uganda, Congolese coffee would find its way across the border and be commingled and sold with Ugandan coffee, and along the Tanzanian border, Ugandan coffee would make its way there for higher premiums, reducing availability of coffee for export.

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Mamboo Coffee building their new wet mill

Sourcing Strategy & Supplier Updates

As we approached rebuilding our network of partners in Uganda without multinationals, we relied heavily on longstanding relationships in Uganda that preceded Crop to Cup’s founding as well as newer relationships that emerged from our work there.

Uganda is geographically well-situated for high-quality specialty coffee production, with coffee gardens on the Rwenzori range on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo reaching as high as 2100 meters in elevation and planted with high-quality cultivars from Bourbon-Typica lineage including SL-28. Because of the small size of most homesteads, aggregation of lots—as well as separation of microlots of exceptional quality—remain essential tools for bolstering quality. 

For 2022-2023, we continued to support a network of grass-roots organizations and independents and collaborated with partner organizations to provide pre-crop financing, understanding that financing would lead to lot separations. After years of work to reestablish our supply chain, most of the important pieces have been built.

Funzo Coffee opened a mill with offices and a cupping lab in Ntinda, and with C2C-backed financing, successfully instituted a 4th tier of quality to separate out the top 5% from what is conventionally considered top quality collections in Erussi.

Mamboo Coffee Network also acquired C2C-backed financing, and with it, land, a new pulper, fermentation tanks and expanded drying beds (with shade nets) for their main collection center. They recently received support from Root Capital in the form of low-cost financing, and a series of training workshops.

The Rulindo Coffee Network sat out the last two harvests due to the ever-increasing cost of cherry and a lack of financing, but with a C2C letter of credit they are now in the field purchasing from the networks they’ve been advising their entire careers (and for two years now as Rulindo, though without purchasing until now).

Zukuku Bora doubled their capacity for drying, and by doing so increased their production times-two. As a non-profit, their first customers are donors who buy this coffee roasted on subscription (roasted on an Arc-800 in Uganda), or church-affiliated roasters in Australia who pre-pay for coffees as part of their donation. Next in line is Crop to Cup; we have the highest quality standards, and so expect the smallest volumes but also that these top lots will continue to grow.

Benx Coffee was a one-woman cupping lab consultancy up until mid ‘22 when Clare received her exporter’s license. She’s now looking to this harvest as her first, and Crop to Cup as her audience for single-producer microlots that can now be consolidated efficiently to export. We’ll be spending time with each of these partners in November and December and lay the groundwork for 2023 when we’ll host a Leadership Conference to bring our partners together with financing partners, millers, agronomists, cuppers, and other service providers.

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How to Get Involved

First and foremost, you can support the work of these independents and our partners by cupping and giving feedback on their coffees. We hope you’ll contract them and support the work directly through the premiums flowing back to them in the form of direct payments as well as pre-harvest financing and letters of credit.

With the rebuilding work we’re doing in Uganda, there is opportunity for something more than transactional—by sharing our knowledge and pairing roasters as coaches for new suppliers, we hope to bring energy and attendance to the 2023 Leadership Meeting.

Reach out to your trader for more information and let us know how you want to be involved.

– The Crop to Cup Sourcing Team

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