You can pretty much set your watch by the sunrise on the Equator. And by the time the sun comes up over the fields of Bukomansimbi County in Uganda, the farmers of the Kibinge Cooperative
are already out tending their coffee bushes high up on the hillsides of central Africa.
From seeds planted by four enterprising local coffee farmers in 1995, the venture has grown into a veritable success story benefiting a much wider community in this isolated but verdant area of Uganda.
General manager David Lukwata has been with the group since the very beginning.
“I am so proud of what we have achieved,” he says. “It’s fantastic to be part of this.”
After 15 years of struggling to make ends meet, the original company made the shrewd decision to become a member-owned cooperative in 2009 to generate more sustainable profit for both the farmers and the organisation. It did and this has enabled it to invest more in its facilities and processing capacity and to provide a better income for its members.
For many of the men and women involved, farming is their sole or primary source of income. So, improving market access and incomes impacts directly on their livelihoods and consequent quality of life.
Guided by principles of integrity, professionalism, competence, respect, fairness and transparency, the co-op now has over 1,600 loyal members – a third of them women – and 15 full time staff.
Lukwata and some of the Kibinge coffee farmers have been involved since the very start and many have been catalysts in its growth. As a result of their collective efforts, many hundreds of families in the area are today reaping the rewards of good organization, smart farming practices, a mutually-supportive structure that allows them all to prosper and, of course, the added-value brought by becoming Fairtrade-certified
Kibinge Coffee’s recent initiatives have focused on gaining access to ever better markets and giving back ever more to their farmers. David says being part of Fairtrade has opened up previously unavailable markets to them.
“It’s given us global exposure. We have contacts everywhere now – networks here in Uganda, the Fairtrade network in Africa (Fairtrade Africa
). When we became certified, we became known. Buyers from all over the world contact us directly – before we even contact them – because we are Fairtrade certified. We have an export license and we’ve won international awards,” says David, who speaks with palpable passion and enthusiasm.
Coffee is an important export crop in Uganda, with more than a million households linked to production of the bean that helps many of us around the world get our day off to a good start.
Kibinge – about 150 kilometres from Uganda’s capital, Kampala with its tropical climate and bi-annual rainy seasons – is a region long famous for its excellent Robusta coffee. The variety, which accounts of about a third of coffee produced globally, does well in Kibinge’s fertile soils shaded by trees at this high altitude. Containing 25 percent more caffeine and having a stronger taste than Arabica coffee, it is particularly popular for balancing out espresso blends.
Economic decline and political unrest saw the quality and volume of the coffee produced here plummet by 1995. It was at that juncture that the original founding farmers decided to bring the tradition of high quality Robusta coffee back to the hills of Kibinge. The farmers’ association they formed would later become Kibinge Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Society.
Since then, the cooperative has taken great strides helping its members to not only increase yield, but also the quality and flavor of their bean through good agricultural practices.
For example, as David explains, how the harvested coffee ‘cherry’ is handled is key to preserving quality.
“We use the 'natural processing’ method in which the coffee cherries are dried properly on tarpaulins or other drying material [rather than on bare ground] before being hulled.”
To ensure that word gets around effectively and efficiently, the farmers are divided into Promoter Farmer Coffee Villages or zones and then sub-divided into groups. Each group is coordinated by one member who is elected on the basis of his or her coffee knowledge and skills. This makes coordination and supervision of standards a lot easier. The promoter farmers work directly with the farmers. They are the vital link between them and the cooperative says David.
“They mobilize local farmers to become members of the cooperative,” he explains. “Then they organize trainings, distribute information, and help coordinate delivery of the coffee beans.”
Through this structure, farmers have learned about environmentally-friendly practices such how to make their own organic leaf mulch for their coffee bushes.
With the Fairtrade Premium, Kibinge has also been able to build and repair roads in the area, many of which were often rendered impassable during rainy times. “Now farmers can move about more easily,” says David.
Farmers have also elected to use the Fairtrade Premium to expand the fields under coffee cultivation by sourcing new seedlings of the right variety.
Recently, the cooperative went two steps further in a bid to improve the lives of those who make the organization tick – it set up a farm supply shop, and a savings and credit union, both with support from Fairtrade Premium funds.
The shop sells supplies – or agricultural inputs – that the farmers specifically need for their business, such as coffee seedlings and fertilizers. It also offers technical information and good advice on the safe use of farm chemicals.
The savings and credit unit provides credit to members and non-members at an affordable rate.
“Now the farmers have access to financial services on their doorstep. They can open accounts, get credit facilities. They can save money with us and get a loan – for personal or business use,” David explains. The latter could be used to invest in coffee production or soil and water conservation to adapt to climate change.
“Without this facility, they would go to middlemen if they ran out of money before the harvest was ready,” he says. “Now the farmers can come to their own credit union to solve their financial problems.”
Both developments are making a real difference to the farmers of Kibinge cooperative and the larger community. Effectively, they allow for collective procurement of agricultural inputs and collective bargaining to improve terms of trade.
Farmers have also elected to invest a portion of the Fairtrade Premium in a plot of land on which the cooperative plans to build its future home. The site will accommodate a modern factory with the technology to process coffee bean from start to finish, the savings and credit unit, and the farm supply shop. It will also serve as a center for visitors to learn more..
But the cooperative is about more than business and profit as far as David is concerned.
“We are far away from the main towns,” he says. “It’s difficult for our farmers to get there and when they do get there, they are dealing with people who they don’t know and who don’t know them. But we do. We know them. We know their capability to pay back loans, for example, and the farmers are relieved to be working with people who understand their needs.”
And it’s that personal contact combined with professionalism, good management and vision that makes the Kibinge Coffee Farmers Cooperative an inspiration for others. And this inspiration is spreading even further after the Kibinge Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society was named the ‘Best Small Producer Organization: Africa’ in the first-ever Fairtrade Awards in June 2014.
If you would like more information on Kibinge Cooperative, feel free to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kibingecoffee.com
. David and the team would love to hear from you!