Western Uganda and Uganda in general are reminiscent of American frontier days. Although government is basically non-existent the rule of law is strictly maintained using local communities and connections. Luckily, we are embarking on our Uganda adventure with members of the Great Lakes Coffee group (GLC), who are of Greek-Congolese descent, and have heritage through the princess of one of the Tooro sub-kingdoms. It always helps to be accompanied by royalty!
Our second day in Uganda started out at the GLC offices in Kampala where I learned about the history of Uganda, the Congo’s coffee systems and got the lay of the land. At the same time Christian went through roaster training with two new roasters at the GLC roasting operation in Kampala. GLC supplies roasted coffee and equipment to many of the local high end hotels throughout Uganda, and they have access to some of Uganda’s best coffees. We will cup these coffees upon our return to Kampala in a few days, both as type samples for the Farmer Brothers’ supply chain, as well as some specialty micro-lots that may interest some of our customers.
After our sessions at the GLC offices we set off on the long journey from Kampala to Fort Portal. Similar to many coffee origins, the ride was punctuated by some unique traffic, incluidng a few goat-induced road blocks. We made it to the Mountain of the Moons hotel in Fort Portal before nightfall and were able to relax with our hosts and indulge in some in-depth coffee conversation for the remainder of the evening.
Sometimes coffee origin trips give the impression of explorer travel. While there is a lot of car and transit time, it is invaluable because it is spent with our coffee suppliers. There are few times when you have 6 hours of your supplier’s un-interrupted attention, and the lack of access to distractions such as cell phone reception and internet access leads to some of the best and most productive conversations I have had in my coffee career.
Day three started early in Fort Portal, and we headed down the mountains toward Kasese, where all of the Drugar supply chain originates in Uganda. You wouldn’t guess from it’s appearance that this large border town is responsible for more than 600,000 bags of dried Uganda naturals that are exported worldwide.
Our first stop was at the GLC owned and operated cherry collection station in the township of Rubona, Uganda. GLC was the first enterprise to come into the Kasese district with the prospect of coffee cherry buying (as opposed to buying already dried natural coffees in their skins). It took some convincing, but early adopters inspired their neighbors to start bringing coffee to the GLC mill in bulk. GLC does something that no one else in the region does: they are transparent with the price they will pay each day for coffee cherry. Also, they are transparent with farmers about the cost of drying, hulling and transporting coffee to Kampala, so each farmer knows exactly the proportion of the price paid that they are receiving before export.
Traditionally, local intermediaries approach small farmers (they deliver only 4-6 kg per day of coffee cherry) and provide pre-harvest “loans” for cash flow during non-harvest times. They also leave behind 20 or so burlap bags, and instruct the farmers that they can pay back these loans by filling the bags with coffee during the harvest season. The catch to this arrangement is that while the farmer may have received $300 as a loan, the coffee that they later deliver is worth upwards of $1,000. This is primarily how intermediaries make their money, and in Uganda there are 5-6 layers of intermediaries who pass coffee in aggregated amounts through the supply chain before it arrives at the door to be sold to a multinational mill in Kampala.
GLC is seeking to disrupt this supply chain, and remove the segments that add cost but no value. While the supply chain is complex, their boots on the ground approach allows them unfettered access to the most important part of the coffee supply chain: the farmers who are producing all of the coffee that we need.
The GLC model did not take long to catch on. Since this model was started last year, there are 15-20 similar operations that have opened up shop in the region. GLC welcomes this opportunity and partners with local cherry collectors who can operate much more cheaply than they can. This helps GLC coffee increase transparency into their traditional Drugar supply chain. To receive cash for paying farmers to deliver coffee cherries, the local shops are only required to gather information from the farmers as they deliver coffee cherries each day. With this approach, we now have records of who is supplying coffee to our lots down to the 2kg per farmer per day level.
The adoption has been staggering. And because of this, we are able to significantly increase the amount of traceable Drugar coffees that we can source for Farmer Brothers.
On the flip side, farmers and collection agents are learning more about their businesses. Now, with good record keeping, the collection point can estimate how much coffee they will receive each day through the harvest to be well prepared with cash on hand for direct payment. And farmers can track their production levels over the years and know how much income they can expect for the rest of the season. Such a simple solution, with incredible impacts for Farmer Brothers and for the farmers themselves.
We visited a few more examples of collection points and traditional supply chains through the afternoon, and then hit the road through Kasese to our stopping point for the night, Queen Elizabeth National Park. We have already spotted some hippos and crocs, as well as a couple of water buffalo and a dizzying number of bird species. All in all, not a bad couple of days!
Molly and Christian.