Lava Cherry and Strato Berry, our volcanic gems in Uganda

People

In 2021, our team visited Uganda and found some new gems to bring home. This year, in 2022, we are introducing our new Ugandan Arabicas, a product of our new partner Great Lakes Coffee (GLC).

On our trip, we met Alex, a lead farmer who connects the local producers in the remote villages to our export partner, Great Lakes Coffee. The story of Alex and his coffee-producing friends and neighbours paints a clear picture of the daily life of our Ugandan Arabica producers

What sets Great Lakes Coffee apart from its regional competitors is its ability to conduct an operation for their site whilst maintaining an impeccable traceability system. This is no simple task, given that many farmers own multiple smaller, dispersed plots of land as small as ½ hectare, and contribute different volumes of coffee, from different lots, at various stages of the harvesting season. 

Their MaxTrace program allows buyers, like us, to trace back our purchased lots to not only a specific region of origin, but even the individual farmer! In having an overview of their regular coffee history, farmers are able to better understand how their coffee production relates to their household income, and plan their household finances accordingly. And if you find yourself cruising through Mount Elgon in a camper jeep, as we did, it allows you to, literally, trace back MaxTrace: visiting the very farmers that contributed to your group lot. Erasing this chasm between producer and importer is at the heart of what it means to have truly transparent collaboration.

Speckled across the slopes of Mount Elgon lie hundreds of smallholder coffee producers. In May 2022, we travelled from the lower Gamoga region all the way up into the heart of the Masira district, to the village of Buzemunwa, to meet some of our coffee farmers at 2100 masl. Sat around a candle-lit camping table, sipping sodas and playing cards, they shared their stories with us.

Lead Farmers, like Alex, connect the local producers in remote villages to our export partner, Great Lakes Coffee. Alex receives the harvested cherries at his collection stations, like the one we camped at in Sulu, where they undergo a quality assessment before farmers receive their payment. The coffee is then transported to GLC’s Sironko processing station.

Lead farmers like Alex aren’t only a vehicle for economic development in remote villages, but are woven deeply into the fabric of the community. Walking through Sulu with Alex felt like being out with a celebrity – every villager we met stopped to talk to him and meet his foreign visitors. He took us through the history of his coffee business, starting at his very first office, barely more than a whole in the wall, all the way through to the impressive collection station he uses today. In connecting Sulu’s farmers to GLC, Alex has helped coffee farming flourish in the area.

They are all small holders, striving to reach a broader market for their coffee. And they found it through Great Lakes Coffee.

Having GLC as our regional partner is the glue that allows us to work with Mount Elgon’s producers in line with our values. Great Lakes Coffee regularly organizes agribusiness training on demonstration plots, transparent, quality-based pricing, and access to premium markets for the sale of their premium traceable coffees. They thereby address some of the most pressing challenges for farmers in the region, such as underpayment and climate-threats. 

Great Lakes Coffee operates on 3 main sourcing models in which local producers can choose how to deliver their coffee: through lead farmers, private agents, and producer organizations.

In 2022, The Coffee Quest is bringing into our assortment two promising profiles from Uganda: Lava Cherry and Strato Berry. This Ugandan Arabica grew organically in volcanic soils as high as 1,700 m.a.s.l, with a distinctive profile of medium/full body coffee with fruity notes. 

Both coffees take their name after their farming origin – the volcanic land, and both carry an explosion of flavors within. Lava cherry is a full-body cup with fruity tropical notes, while Strato berry has a floral hint.

The majority of coffees in the region are picked and processed by individual households, who then deliver their coffees to local collection centres. Here is it appropriately recorded to ensure it remains traceable upon arrival at Great Lakes Coffee’s processing station in Sironko, “The Coffee Yard”. This is where GLC’s Head of Sourcing, Norman, works his magic to produce the Lava Cherry and Strato Berry bean we know and love. 

The StratoBerry spends a longer time on the drying bed to reduce moisture levels, and only enjoys a quick stay of maximum of 24 hours in the fermentation bin, to produce its tutti-fruity, floral profile. The Lava Cherry, on the other hand, spends only a little time on the drying bed to ensure the coffee retains enough moisture to bring about its boozy profile after up to 3 days in the fermentation tanks. 

Once it has completed its processing, the coffee travels to the Mbale lab, where Maria and her Quality Control team analyse every coffee sample that passes through. Their results are then calibrated with those of Ronald, head of GLC’s Kampala Lab, before the coffee is cleared for export. 

Great Lakes Coffee ensures that all participants in their chain receive the attention and support they need to maintain their high standards of green beans. By ongoingly providing agro-inputs, GLC plays a key role in farmers in the region now producing some of the highest quality Arabica coffee in Uganda.

Price

Great Lakes Coffee works to stay on top of its game for price transparency. Here the MaxTrace system acts as a traceability measurement tool, Great Lake Coffee collects data on several aspects of individual households, including product traceability, price transparency and generated impact. Afterwards, the company provides MaxTrace’s official reports to communicate the results to its buyers, as well as using it as a base upon which to base economic guidance to farmers.

During harvesting season, GLC also ensures that each of their collection stations exhibits a white board with the current coffee prices on them. This ensures that farmers know what price they can expect to fetch if they sell their coffee that day. This avoids a common problem whereby farmers do not know what price their coffee will fetch until it is being sold. Similarly, explaining to farmers how the quality of their coffee relates to the price upon collection at the collection stations, allows farmers to connect these two factors and helps incentivise high-quality coffee production and harvesting practices. Ensuring price traceability at both ends of the supply chain is an integral part to ensuring a fair and just supply chain.

“Higher profitability equals higher income for farmers”. – Great Lakes Coffee 

Planet

Traditionally, coffee in Uganda is produced with a minimal footprint and maximised climate resilience. Climate-smart practices such as intercropping, mulching and usage of organic fertilisers are already largely the norm. Many farmers also rear livestock, using the waste products as additional compost on their farms. 

Great Lake Coffee is actively updated with the current situation in individual households. They pay extra attention to environmental farming aspects, including issues of biodiversity, natural resources as well as good agricultural practices in general. Apart from gaining a clear understanding, Great Lake Coffee also hosts training workshops to provide expertise topics such as water management and waste management.

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