Hello from where your coffee comes from. Part 1.

Posted by Darcy SmallDecember 9, 2019
Introduction

In 2015, I went to Splendour with three high school mates. It rained relentlessly and we drank too much. Our week alternated between wading through ankle-deep mud and curling up on camping mats in gloomy tents, feeling too unwell to move. This trip reminds me of that experience. Paths here need gumboots to navigate and roads are a challenge even for 4x4’s. We’ve been bedridden since Friday afternoon … six hours after we braved a bad breakfast rolex (fried egg wrap). Yet, like Splendour, Uganda will be remembered as awesome.

Context 

This year, Kua traded just under two tonnes of coffee. Our 2020 target is seven tonnes (ambitious??) and we’re here to understand exactly where that seven tonnes comes from.

There are three main groups we’ll buy from:

  1. Zukuka Bora: produces around 25 tonnes of coffee annually. They pay the fairest prices (plus a 'hungry season bonus’), they know farmers by name and buy only specialty-grade coffee. But, it's expensive. 
  2. Kyagalanyi: in a word: enormous (as in, they export more than 200 tonnes per day). They buy anything: from the crimson cherries hand-picked at the summit to the wrinkly sultanas traded in the potholed carparks of the foothills. Perhaps surprisingly, they maintain a focus on sustainability, with both UTZ and Rainforest Alliance certifications up their sleeves. 
  3. AgriEvolve: so far, we’ve bought only from the East. But, two-thirds of Uganda’s Arabica comes from the West. The trees are wild and scraggly, but they have potential. AgriEvolve is a UTZ-certified group pushing specialty coffees that raise the profile of this entire region.

There are three main types of coffee we buy:

  1. Washed: coffee grows as a cherry, but it’s the little bean inside that gets Melbourne baristas yapping. After picking, the outer skin is separated using a pulper and the slimy residue that protects the bean is removed by soaking in water for two days.
  2. Honey: as it turns out, the slimy residue can be pretty delicious. Honey coffees forgo the soaking step, with the bean and residue sun-dried straight after pulping. We use honey coffee to sweeten our blend. 
  3. Natural: pick and dry - that’s it. The entire cherry is dried and the bean is pulped out afterwards. This creates whacky and acidic fruity flavours … something Hamish is keen to start experimenting with.
Honey coffee. Sipi Falls, Lot 48. 
Part One

On day two, we revisited our financial projections and customer feedback to pencil an order for 2020. This is our shopping list:

  1. 2T Zukuka Bora: half honey, half washed
  2. 4T Kyagalanyi: washed
  3. 1T AgriEvolve: natural

Then, as if visiting Aldi on a milk run, we folded the list in half, tucked it in our back pockets and drew up a week-long itinerary to visit the source of each item. So far, we’ve ticked off just the first box. And it was a ride and a half. 

Part Two

Wednesday

Here’s our last photo of Hamish. His hand-printed shirt was crispy white two hours prior (buy yours here). He was riding in the tray of Isaac’s (Head of Ops, Zukuka Bora) ute when it started fishtailing on a particularly muddy bend of Mount Elgon’s single-lane road. He jumped out (alongside seven locals) to push, but happened to choose a position directly behind the left rear wheel. Bailey banished him from all photos after this moment. 

Hamish, our coffee guy.

The Bukhanakwa Ridge is 2100m above sea-level, sitting just below the boundary of Mount Elgon's National Park. This is where our Zukuka coffee comes from (shopping list item 1). The buying station - a roof without walls - is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. With sacks of up to 80kgs balanced on their heads, farmers trek their freshly picked cherries for kilometres to make the sundown cut-off. Tarpaulins are spread across the mud floor and entire families gather to sort cherries until the “100% red!” requirement is met. After Isaac inspects for quality, Zukuka Bora pays immediately, in cash. For farmers with children in the double digits, this makes an enormous difference to school attendance. 

Thursday

In grant applications, we often describe Mount Elgon’s landslides as a climate-crisis-induced phenomenon that’s threatening farmer livelihoods. On Thursday, this became very real. This December is uncharacteristically wet. Boulders the size of Brody’s 1990 Corolla tumble down the hill, with farms that have provided for generations at risk of being whisked away in a moment. So, we stayed in a powerless and remote park ranger’s hut at the top of the ridge and politely ate goat for lunch, waiting for the rains to pass. 

Bukhanakwa ranger's station. 
Friday

We ate the rolex for breakfast. This email is the first productive task I’ve managed since. 

Conclusion

Tomorrow, we’re visiting the second item on the shopping list: Kyagalanyi’s Gibuzale washing station. We’re then planning a cross-country dash to the West for the final item. I’ll let you know how it goes. 

After thoughts

This is a live shot of me writing this update, which took a surprisingly long time (monkeys and fresh coffee were distractions). Perhaps in the same way that at the end of the mud-wade at Splendour was the John Butler Trio, at the end of food poisoning is this plastic table-set above a waterfall in the sun. That’s what makes both awesome. 

All images by Bailey Chappel.

This email in the making. 
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