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Darcy Small, 17 December 2019

Hello from where your coffee comes from. Part 2.

In late 2019 four of us travelled to Uganda to speak with our coffee farmers and work with our impact partners on the ground. Darcy wrote these updates in between the rain squalls and long days on the mountain.

A frosty banana milkshake blended with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream goes alright, but if I were forced to make the choice, I’d opt for a fresh coffee any day. Unfortunately, the proud owners of ancient coffee plots in Uganda’s West have started drowning their trees in the shade of banana palms and ‘chopping and swapping’ for vanilla bushes. Despite a growing global demand, a lack of innovation in this region has seen coffee prices flatline for years, such that farmers can no longer meet the cost of living and are forced to try other things.

Bananas on bodas
Bananas on bodas

You know you’ve made it from East to West when the greens transition from hues of blue to yellow and the browns shift from the colour of rust to charcoal. Camping at the base of the Rwenzoris, which will host one of the few glaciers on the equator for just another twenty-five years, it wasn’t until our road was blocked by a rogue herd that we realised coffee here is grown on slopes overlooking a wild elephant stomping ground.


A family of elephants cross the road
Mon, Bailey and Hamish poke out from a sun-roof to watch an elephant family
Elephants and other side of the camera.

Paul is a Rwenzori farmer. In this picture, he’s hanging out with Mon in a plot at the bottom of his farm. His three acres of land have been doing pretty much exactly the same thing since his grandfather was a boy: growing coffee, matooke, eggplant and tomatoes. But, in 2012, Paul added one new crop. It doesn’t need much tending and it doesn’t yield fruit, yet every year or so, new earnings land in Paul’s mobile money account. Trees. They stabilise land, provide a home for native bees, shed soil-fertilising leaves … and generate carbon credits. In 2020, through an ECOTRUST program called Trees for Global Benefit, Kua will be offsetting its carbon footprint and providing farmers in our coffee growing region, like Paul, with a supplementary source of income.

Paul and Mon hanging out among the trees and drizzle.
Paul and Mon hanging out among the trees and drizzle.

This may play a role in tackling the impending banana milkshake crisis, but really, it’s AgriEvolve that’s on the frontlines and making good progress. By building a network of remote buying stations that collect cherries fresh rather than dried, they’re able to pay farmers twice the price, enabling them to keep coffee trees in the ground. They’re backed by Kyagalanyi (the enormous group mentioned in the last email) and somehow, the Kua team found themselves sharing lunch with Alistair, the manager of Kyagalanyi, at the house of Jonny, the manager of AgriEvolve. To make conversation, I thanked these two coffee big dogs for their time, “especially given we calculated that Kua actually only purchases 0.00000013% of your annual harvest”.

Pure tact.

This email’s a bit disjointed because I’m writing it on the fly. Literally. We just landed in Sydney. The way home was smooth sailing, but the way over was a delay-ridden, four-flight, fifty-hour ordeal that will require many more than Paul’s trees to offset in emissions. Interestingly, our cross-country dash, from the border of Kenya in the East to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the West was also fifty hours.

Hour thirty-seven was the lunch. Given our meagre buying percentage, we were surprised at how generous Alistair and Jonny were with their time. Upon discovering how little coffee Kua actually buys, Alistair was surprised as well. But not because here he was, a big dog sharing lunch with a surprisingly little dog. Rather, for a lot of businesses, tracing supply chains and reinvesting profits comes as an afterthought, or a checkbox to tick after profitability. Kua worked out who its farmers were before finding out whether it had customers, and only started making money after it had something important to spend it on in Uganda.

Hopefully this order of operations becomes less surprising in the future.

Let’s catch up soon,