The Best Wake Up
Phew, so the first fully-fledged harvest season for Zukuka Bora Coffee Company is pretty much done. The green coffee is in a container on its way to Melbourne, and we’ve just had our first delivery of Ugandan-roasted coffee for us to sell domestically. It’s a great time to reflect back on the season.
First thoughts – EPIC! Epic in so many ways. One of the primary drivers from the outset was ‘we get one harvest season per year, so let’s make it count!’ and not one of us has left anything in reserve. We really did have a seriously go at it. It’s almost ridiculous – in our 2015 trial season we processed about 500kg of coffee cherry; this season – 25,000kg. I'm not great at maths, but that feels like a pretty big jump in anyone’s book. We were stretched to the limit by seasons end, but it’s been an absolute blast and a privilege to be able to work directly with farmers in this little corner of Mt Elgon, Uganda.
As customers of Commonfolk and followers of the blog, you’ll know some of the background to ‘The Cup That Counts’ and the motivation to see coffee farmers properly rewarded for their efforts. We are SO THANKFUL for this brilliant initiative, and we can honestly say that every cent raised through this has gone directly into building this life-changing project, ensuring farmers get support in quality cultivation practices and a much better deal for them and their families.
Our farmers are right at the heart of what we do – and rightly so. It’s eye-opening to see quite how much work goes into making your daily cup of coffee – and how much of that work is done by the farmers themselves. On the flip side, it’s sobering to realise how little of final value of coffee generally gets returned to the farmer. We see first-hand the discouragement that farmers have faced – so often exploited by middlemen and companies who are only interested in volume, not quality. This only further depletes the small amount of money they receive; the incentive and motivation to produce quality disappears. Many farmers have turned their backs on coffee altogether – it simply does not pay the school fees or adequately supports their families. It’s been thrilling to be able to make an immediate impact this season to over 500 farmers and their families. Zukuka Bora has ensured each farmer has received a higher price for their hand-selected coffee cherries, than any other processing mill on the mountain. Once we have sold all our coffee, we will then pay an additional bonus, right when farmers need it most in ‘hungry season’.
But perhaps the thing that has struck – and surprised us - the most in this first full season has been the number of hands that go into making quality coffee. And more than that, how many people – beyond the coffee farmers themselves – have actually benefited from the project already. No doubt we’ll miss some people off this list, but for starters:
- The coffee pickers (often not the farmers themselves),
- The young men carrying the 60-100kg sacks of coffee to the washing station. This is a story in itself – we were able to employ dozens of young men throughout the season to assist with heavy labour. Most of these guys were previously sitting around in the trading centre with no work and no prospect of work. We were able to provide a fair wage, and several went on to become employed through the season in the mill itself.
- The small roadside firm that made our drying racks – they were delighted with the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars which we spent on constructing our innovative racks.
- The metalworkers who put together our pedal-powered coffee pulping machine, which attracted so much interest in the community.
- The widows we employed to help us meticulously sort through the coffee as it dried on the racks.
- The plumbers and building labourers who worked with such speed, efficiency and determination to get everything in place at our washing station in time for the season.
- The truck drivers who shifted all the coffee around, and finally down to Kampala in preparation for export.
- The list could go on!
So to everyone involved at Commonfolk, to every single person who buys a cup of coffee – thank you! I hope this short blog gives just a glimpse into the dramatic impact you are having here in Uganda. Thank you, thank you, thank you – and please keep drinking coffee!
One final story to close. The name of our company, here on the ground in Uganda is ‘Zukuka Bora’. ‘Zukuka’ is a Lugandan (local language) word meaning ‘wake up’, and ‘Bora’ means ‘the best’. So roughly translated it means ‘the best wake-up’. However the word ‘Zukuka’ has come to mean a lot more through the season – in a way which was best exemplified through just one event at the end of a very long day on the mountain. We were just closing up the washing station, tired from the day’s activities when an old mama walked up with a small black bag. It was early in the season and we’d had a fairly tough day of sorting through coffee and showing that we really were serious about only wanting the best and most ripe cherries. Our expectations were fairly low for what this small plastic bag at the end of the day would contain. As we opened the small bag – which must have been less than 1kg – you can imagine our delight as we came across the most perfect and ripe cherries we had seen, not just that day, but all season! We were all pretty stunned, and asked the old mama who had told her about the project and who had instructed her to only bring red cherries. She told us that she had heard about us and our desire to only produce quality coffee. She was thrilled and immediately went to her garden and did something that she had always done when she was younger, but hadn’t done for about 30 years – picked only the best coffee cherries. She didn’t need to be told how to pick properly – it was the way it always had been done until the market for quality coffee from Uganda all but disappeared 30 years ago (which is a story in itself). She told us - as have other older farmers – that she had been waiting for a project like this to come back. Through the season it has been our older farmers who have been our most brilliant supporters and advocates, consistently delivering top-quality coffee. We’ve taken this to heart and have reflected that we’re not doing anything new here – we’re simply ‘waking up’ (Zukuka!) what has been a sleeping industry for quality coffee. It’s exciting and humbling to be playing a small part - in a hopefully much bigger story to come - of better Ugandan coffee and therefore better outcomes for hard-working farmers here on Mt Elgon.
Dave Bishop has worked for various aid and community development agencies in Uganda on and off for almost a decade. He lives in Mbale, Uganda with his wife Anna and their children. He was handed the task of overseeing the Zukuka Bora / The Cup That Counts initiative on the ground on Mt Elgon. Much of the success and impact Zukuka Bora Coffee Company is having is due to the guidance and leadership of Dave and his team.