Farm: Mt. Elgon Kapchorwa
Varietal: SL28, SL 34, & some SL14, Nyasaland & Bugisu
Processing: Fully washed & dried on raised beds
Altitude: 1,600 to 2,050 above sea level
Owner: 997 farmers - members of Mt. Elgon Washed Arabica Scheme of Kyagalanyi Coffee Ltd.
Town / City: Kapchorwa district, Sipi sub-county
Region: Eastern Uganda - Mount Elgon region
Kapchorwa lot 27 - Uganda
For many, Uganda might not the first country that comes to mind when thinking of high quality Arabica coffee: the country has been traditionally known as a producer of Robusta. However, in many regions of the country the challenges are more a matter of infrastructure, history and knowledge than environment. For instance, the slopes of Mt. Elgon in country’s East (bordering Kenya) are ideally suited for the production of high-quality specialty coffee.
The locals believe that god lives on Mt. Elgon - far beyond where people venture - and that when he is happy, he delivers rain to the bountiful gardens clinging to the mountainside. Indeed, these green, fertile hillsides are very nearly divine territory for the production of spectacular coffees, and producers are increasingly realising their potential.
Kyagalanyi is one of the entities tapping into this budding potential and making it possible for smallholders to participate in specialty markets. In Uganda, they operate three sustainable Arabica washing stations, all of which are UTZ certified. The largest of these washing stations is located in the Mt. Elgon region, a programme that incorporates processing infrastructure with agricultural extension services.
One of the areas covered by the Mt. Elgon scheme is Kapchorwa. The Kapchorwa group is formed around Kaphorwa washing station and represents some of the highest altitude coffees from Mt Elgon. In this area, Kyagalanyi permanent extension staff work with 997 smallholder farmers organised into 35 UTZ certified farmer groups. Most of these farmer groups have been working together since 2008. A total of 175 farmers delivered cherries for this Kapchorwa lot.
All participating farmers are smallholders whose families have grown coffee for generations. The average farm size is only around 1 hectare, and on this most families also farm a variety of subsistence crops such as matooke (cooking banana) and fruit trees, beans, peas, millet and coco yam. Although matooke is also an important cash crop, coffee is the more valuable source of income for most families, particularly for livelihood improvement investment. It represents about 77% of the farm acreage and provides the cash flow required for large investments (school fees, livestock, land, house construction etc.), whereas matooke provides a week-on-week regular cash flow for smaller day-to-day purchases.
With such small plots of coffee, but with coffee playing such an important economic role for so many families, it is not surprising that coffee production on Mt. Elgon comes with challenges. Rainfall is becoming more irregular, with frequent droughts and punishing rainstorms. Temperatures are rising across the board. In these unreliable circumstances, Kyagalanyi plays a very important role. Not only has the team worked to promote ecological buffer zones and shade tree planting in the coffee farms, which helps regulate temperature and curtail erosion from sudden deluges, they also provide training in a wide range of agricultural topics. A large field team provides a range of extension work to help coffee farmers improve coffee production and their livelihoods. As coffee yields are still far below optimal, farmers can easily still double productivity. Group trainings, individual household trainings, coffee youth teams, demo plots, model farms, coffee nurseries and free cherry collection are all services that the Kyagalanyi team offers to help smallholder families make the most of their land. Improved farm management through these trainings will make the trees more resilient to climate change and overall off-set any yield reductions due to changing weather patterns.
Environmental protection is very important, as well. The Kapchorwa area borders the Mt. Elgon national park. Park boundaries are clearly indicated and guarded by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, but Kyagalanyi know that ecological preservation across the board is very important for long-term sustainability. Their work is paying off, and in May 2018, the farmer support programme of Kyagalanyi was awarded a Sustainable Standard Setter Award by Rainforest Alliance / UTZ. They are the first coffee company in Africa to have won this prestigious award.
As mentioned below, Kapchorwa smallholders are stuck in the common circular conundrum of low production>low income>lack of money for inputs>low production. To put it briefly, the following issues are rife:
- low farm acreage and
- low yields per tree due to:
- Old trees;
- Nutrient deficiencies due to lack of organic manure and limited use of inorganic fertilisers;
- Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) and to a lesser extent coffee leaf rust due to lack of resistant varieties in Uganda and limited use of coppers and fungicides
As almost all arable land is already in use, farmers who seek to secure higher income from coffee simply must intensify coffee production. Kyagalanyi has a large number of demonstration plots and model farms used to train farmers on the best practices for and benefits of renovation work, inorganic fertiliser use and improved control of CBD and leaf rust. In addition, all member farms receive at least one individual household training per year. During this visit, the Kyagalanyi field staff help the farmers to identify their coffee farm’s constraints and advises them accordingly. Kyagalanyi has also set up Coffee Youth Teams in the Kapchorwa area. These youth provide commercial farm management services, including rejuvenation and application of agro-inputs.
This work over the past five years has resulted in improved adoption of stumping and inorganic fertiliser use in the Kapchorwa area and related increases in yields.
Traditionally, soil fertility in coffee fields is maintained through agro-forestry systems, organic manure (cows), erosion control and some mulching with crop residues. However, nutrient removal rates through harvest are higher than nutrient inputs and nutrients supplied through soil weathering. Crop residues are often used to feed the cows, but 1-3 cows per 1 hectare farm cannot supply sufficient manure for good yielding production. Nutrient deficiencies are therefore common in the region. Kyagalanyi teams have seen strong responses to inorganic fertiliser in their demo plots and model farms. Farmers are appreciating the fertiliser recommendations and increasingly adopting them.
Regular rejuvenation was previously not practiced in the coffee areas of Mt. Elgon. Farmers would only cut-off dead or non-productive stems on an irregular basis. As a result, the majority of trees in the Kapchorwa area were very old. Kyagalanyi introduced the concept of full stumping in 2014/15 on their demo plots. As the farmers return to the demo plots for regular trainings, they see how the rejuvenated trees develop and learn of the importance of sucker selection, fertilisation and CBD control to optimally promote growth in the rejuvenated trees. They are also encouraged to try out rejuvenation on a few trees in their own farms during individual household trainings. As many farmers in the region are aging and rejuvenating large trees with hand saws is tiresome, Kyagalanyi set-up coffee youth teams to offer commercial stumping services.
During the harvest season, Kyagalanyi encourages farmers to deliver cherry to their new, state-of-the-art wet mill instead of hand pulping on their farm. This has given the programme increased control over processing activities, which can be challenging in the region as rains during the harvest season are common. Most farmers live fewer than 10 kilometres away from the washing station. Depending on distance and volumes, farmers will deliver coffee on foot or on a small motorbike. Kyagalanyi also has a truck that offers free transport services that visits every farmer group 1-2 times per week during harvest season. As the coffee trees flower multiple times, the harvest season is quite long (4-5 months). Farmers normally pick coffee at least once every week.
Kyagalanyi implements a 95% red cherry policy. When farmers arrive at the Kapchorwa washing station, the washing station manager will check the cherry quality. If the quality is not good enough, farmers will have to sort their cherries at the station until 95% red before their coffee is purchased. Kyagalanyi provides tarpaulins and racks to assist in the sorting.
To conserve the environment, Kapchorwa washing station only uses eco-pulpers. All cherries are pulped on the day of purchase and separated by weight into first and second classes. The pulped coffee is then dry-fermented for 12 hours in the dry fermentation tank.
In the morning, the dry fermented coffee is washed in the washing bay next to the dry fermentation tank. This is done by hand. To benefit from the early morning sun, washing always takes place before 10 am. After washing, the parchment is pre-dried on ‘dripping racks’ for one day and then is moved to one of the Kapchorwa greenhouses for an additional day. As weather conditions at Kapchorwa (high altitude, so cold and always rainy during the harvest season) do not favour drying, the parchment is transferred to the group’s Mbale factory at the foot of Mt. Elgon after 2 days of drying. There the parchment is sun-dried and regularly sorted on drying tables - separated by lot - until dry. Depending on weather conditions this takes an average 2 weeks.
About the Varieties:
Most farmers in the region grow old rootstock SL28 and SL34, interspersed with the occasional SL14, Nyasaland and Bugisu.
SL28/34/14 - Scott Laboratories was a research organisation based in Kenya that developed multiple cultivars under contract between 1934 and 1963. Scott Labs developed various SL varieties, mostly based on Moka and Bourbon types brought by the Scotch and French missions to Kenya to cultivate.
Some of the more successful SL (Scott Labs…get it?) varieties are still widely grown in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda today, however, SL 28 and SL 34 are the ones that are most relevant for specialty coffee. It is important to note that by ‘developed’ we mean that the varieties below were ‘selected’ by Scott Labs over time. They are not ‘hybrids’ – although they were technically ‘developed’ in a ‘lab’.
SL28 – Bred in 1931 from Tanganyika D.R, SL 28 has become ubiquitous throughout East Africa and is recognised as a variety of exceptional cup quality. Beans are wide and productivity comparatively low. Though it is not substantiated that we can find, some sources claim that Scott Labs crossed mutations of French Mission, Mocha and Yemen Typica to produce the SL 28 variety. No matter the exact genetic composition, almost certainly their original goal was to create a plant with high quality, reasonable productivity and great drought resistance. SL 28 hits the first objective squarely on the head.
SL34 – A mutation of French Mission, originating from the plantation of Loresho in Kabete, SL 34 has wide leaves with bronzy tips. It is widely grown throughout Kenya. SL 34 is valued for its high productivity in different climate conditions and great height ranges. It is also claimed to be resistant towards draught and strong rainfall.
SL14 – SL14 was selected in 1936 from a single tree labeled Drought Resistant II (D.R. II), and drought tolerance is a noted characteristic of SL14. Historical records documenting the origin of D.R. II were lost, but the seedlings were established at Kabete in 1933 and then widely distributed in areas east of the Rift Valley in Kenya. The variety is now widespread in Kenya and Uganda
Nyasaland is Bourbon-Typica Group (Typica-related) variety and one of the oldest Arabica coffee varieties introduced to Africa. The variety originates from Typica introduced to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1878 from Jamaica. By 1891 there was a flourishing coffee industry in Malawi, but this eventually declined because of the marginal climate, which is hotter and drier than is usual for Typica. High incidence of pests including white stem borer coupled with inexperienced farmers allowing the plants to overbear in the first years caused a precipitous fall in yields that ultimately led to the abandonment of coffee in Malawi.
Nyassaland was taken from Malawi to Uganda in 1910, where farmers also struggled with the variety. Early failure led to the widespread planting of Robusta in Uganda. But in recent years, there has been a small resurgence of Arabica growing on the slopes of Mount Elgon, where Nyasaland (locally called Bugisu) is an important variety for smallholders.
Bugisu is a local variety of Nyassaland. The name derives simply from the region, where it is widely used to connote that a coffee is processed using the washed method as opposed to the Drugar/Natural processing method.
Kyagalanyi is ISO accredited and UTZ certified. Wages are based on the role the individual is carrying out, market rate comparisons, cost of living and individual performance. They have in place a number of initiatives which support employee welfare such as a subsidized lunch, 21 days annual leave, medical insurance or access to medical facilities financially covered by the company, access to clean drinking water at all times and employee suggestion boxes at all sites. In addition they operate in accordance with the Workers Compensation requirements of Uganda as well as having an additional insurance cover in place and a compassionate leave policy. All employees are provided with appropriate PPE equipment depending on the nature of their role.
Kyagalanyi has developed a gender engagement programme in other parts of Mt. Elgon and plans to extend this to the Kapchorwa area very soon. They support youth employment through the Coffee Youth Team project. They also promote the construction of energy saving stoves to reduce fire-wood consumption.