I was lucky enough to travel to Uganda in April, taking every precaution and being tested ten times a day, or at least that’s what it felt like. What a beautiful journey through Uganda it was.
There’s a good reason we took the calculated risk to travel. Firstly, since I will be taking over the buying for Nordic Approach’s Ugandan offers, it was important to meet our partner, Kingsley Griffin, from Kingha Estate in Nyakshenyi in the west. This is our third year working with Kingha Coffees, and even though I know a lot about the project and have cupped these coffees every year, there is no substitute for visiting in person. It offers a much greater level of understanding and short cuts future conversations with Kingsley. It also helps me to communicate with you, our roasters, as there is no substitute for first-hand experience, being on the ground to see all the difficulties, details, and rewards of working in the Nyakshenyi region.
Kingha Estate is located in the Western Region, a short but adventurous airplane ride from Kampala, or a loooong eight hour drive through many hills and difficult terrain. We met Kingsley in the nearby town Kanungu which is central to a lot of the traffic in the district. On the road I heard a report from the government stating the West is the ideal coffee growing region due to the altitude, soil and stable weather thanks to the cloud and rain forests nearby. It may or may not be true, but it’s easy to believe when driving through the landscape of lush greenery. It seems stuff just really wants to grow everywhere you look.
Quality has not historically been the focus of the Ugandan coffee industry. The bigger exporters working in this region tend to buy any cherry, regardless of maturity or standard. This makes it very difficult for a quality-focused washing station like Kingha to attract farmers. Kingsley has to convince them to pick only ripe cherries over a long period of time. Farmers must deliver multiple times for a series of small payments, rather than stripping the trees in a day and selling their coffee all at once. Generally whoever is paying more right now is the person they will sell to because they have such huge financial demands like repaying loans, school fees for their kids, books, clothes, food, and all the usual costs of a family.
To make his case, Kinglsey goes out to visit the farmers at their homes. He meets their kids and spouses to make that personal connection, often over some food. Farmers who agree to sell their cherries to Kingsley receive additional support. The Kingha crew will continue to visit, educating farmers on how to improve both yield and quality with training in farm management, soil improvement, tree health, and bookkeeping. Kingsley understands that it is crucial that he keeps his word. When he promises to meet somewhere to buy coffee cherries, he must be there. Otherwise there won’t be anyone selling him coffee cherries next time.
When visiting in April, the only way to get to many of these farms was on a “boda boda”, the local motorcycle that is used for every kind of transport. We drove up the nearby mountains climbing up to ~1800-2200 masl. Farms that were invisible from the valley below revealed themselves as we climbed. Generally the farmers growing arabica in this region have enormous trees, between 2 and 3.5 meters tall! The trees are mostly of the SL14 and SL28 varieties, with a lot of other crops growing in between, usually a combination of beans, multiple varieties of bananas, pineapple, mango, and vegetables. Most, but not all, farmers seem to be organic by default, simply because it is the cheapest way to grow.
Kingsley will try to find a trusted person within these small farming communities on the mountains who can communicate with the rest, making sure they are ready at the collection points to sell their cherry, and knowing when Kingsley’s crew is heading up the mountain to buy. He can’t just simply drop them a text saying “I’m coming”. Firstly they don’t all own a cell phone, and secondly they need to plan ahead since the terrain becomes pretty impossible to navigate after a rainshower or two. Dirt roads turn into muddy tracks along treacherous cliffs. This is not the time you want to be driving a loaded truck or boda boda filled with coffee cherries up and down the mountains.
Farms in the Western Region can have vastly different crop cycles. So much so that on a single branch you can see the two different crop cycles growing. This makes it challenging when it comes to building enough volume to make export and import financially viable. But it also presents a great opportunity. We hope to work with the two distinct crop windows to be able to have fresh Ugandan coffees landing twice a year.
Kingha Coffee social and environmental projects
I recently caught up with Kingsley online to talk about the various projects he is running through Kingha Coffee. Kingsley and his wife set up Kingha Coffee to provide sustainable improvements in quality and farmer livelihoods in their part of Uganda. Discover the various projects and how they are impacting the coffee growing community connected to Kingha Estate.
Have a wonderful week and reach out to us if you’re looking to commit to some of the projects.
– Jamie Jongkind