The Zukuka Bora Coffee Company Story
Zukuka Bora Coffee Company was initiated in 2014 by an NGO – JENGA Community Development Outreach (British and Ugandan registered charity), who are based in Mbale, eastern Uganda. JENGA, who have been working on the slopes of Mt Elgon for more than 10 years, have spent much of this time discussing with families on the mountain the type of projects they felt would be most beneficial to their livelihoods and future. This has led to a number of initiatives including community-based savings groups, women’s community groups, training community health workers, and simple – but effective – interventions such as goat-rearing projects and tree-planting schemes.
Through the development of these projects, as well as continuing discussions with community members, it became apparent that there was one particular project that had significant potential to benefit a large number of families living across the slopes of Mt Elgon. The mountain – partly due to its volcanic heritage – plus its elevation (up to 4321m) and position just north of the equator, makes it perfect for the cultivation of world-class Arabica coffee. Uganda used to be famous for the quality of its coffee – and while it continues to be Uganda’s main cash crop, quality has generally been sacrificed in favour of quantity. The reasons for this are numerous, but the result is that farmers on the ground receive generally very poor prices for their crop.
In the communities where we work, the majority of coffee is purchased by intermediaries and then sold on to the main coffee companies in Mbale. Often good quality coffee is mixed with poor quality coffee, which affects buyer confidence and the price received through the value chain. For the past 30 years there has been little incentive to practice excellent coffee cultivation or harvesting practices as there was no differential on offer to the farmers. Due to these variable and poor prices on offer, we have seen many farmers lose interest in coffee and cut down their trees, shifting to a different and hopefully more profitable crop. However, many of the farmers we talked to during our research – particularly those older members of the community - spoke of their desire to be connected directly to a buyer who demanded quality coffee, knowing that they could receive greater benefit for their efforts.
Launch of Zukuka Bora Coffee Company
One of the benefits of JENGA’s development over more than 10 years, has been the range and number of visitors the charity has attracted from all over the world. Two years ago we had the pleasure of hosting a small team from Melbourne, Australia – some of whom were launching a coffee business in their city. After a short trip to the mountain communities, they were able to see the potential for specialty-grade coffee coming direct from the slopes of Mt. Elgon to supply their emerging business. Being social entrepreneurs, they were keen to not only get a top-quality product but also be able to benefit those who are the poorest and most vulnerable in the value chain.
As JENGA, we were excited by the marrying of their vision, and our growing understanding of the initiatives that might benefit the communities where we work. Plans were subsequently put in place to establish a separate specialty coffee business which would connect growers on Mt. Elgon directly with specialty buyers, with the aim of obtaining better prices for the farmers and offer a more sustainable and secure future in coffee.
As with any company, much time was devoted to coming up with a name(!), with Zukuka Bora Coffee Company being the most popular. ‘Zukuka’ is a Luganda term meaning ‘Wake up! / Be revived!’, which fits well with the reviving effects of coffee plus our desire to ‘wake up’ an essentially ‘sleeping’ industry for quality coffee on the mountain. ‘Bora’ is a Swahili term meaning ‘The Best’, which speaks to our desire to deliver the best quality coffee possible, plus our desire to run the business in the best possible way – in a way which results in maximum benefits for our farmers, plus establishes a secure and sustainable business for years to come. Our desire is also to see young people drawn back to agriculture – particularly in a country where population growth is booming, and the need for ‘smarter’ agricultural practices will become more and more necessary.
Progress to date
In 2014, we purchased a small plot of land to be used as a demonstration garden. Here we have applied the best practices in coffee cultivation, including proper spacing of coffee trees, ensuring adequate shade cover, mulching, soil protection measures, utilisation of organic fertiliser and pesticides, and correct harvesting procedures. We have used the site as a central meeting and demonstrating point during training sessions covering the techniques mentioned.
This proved successful in further establishing relationships with coffee farmers on the mountain, as well as give us valuable research time and experience in the methods of producing top-grade specialty coffee.
In 2015, we had our first trial harvesting season with a small group of farmers from one of the communities where we work. We worked together with them harvesting only the ripe cherries and then processing the coffee in line with the highest quality procedures from our research. We conducted our processing in the heart of one of the trading centres, and we attracted a great deal of interest from neighbouring farmers – most of whom thought we were crazy by ‘throwing away good coffee’ (particularly during the cherry floatation process, which separates the better and poorer quality cherries prior to further processing). Others – again mainly the older members – spoke of how familiar such techniques were and how they had largely been forgotten or abandoned. It was a fascinating season, and we were encouraged that when our coffee was independently cupped we were scoring a very high specialty grade on the SCAA scale.
Following such encouragement, we pursued plans to launch the business officially in early 2016, starting with formal registration of our farmers into groups of 30 members. We established 54 such groups across the slopes of Mt Elgon (1,400m – 2,000m), and immediately commenced a series of trainings with the group leaders and members, culminating with preparations for the 2016 harvest (Sept-Dec). Alongside preparations with the farmers, we constructed a wet mill in the heart of one of our core areas which would serve as a base for receiving and processing the fresh cherries direct from the farmers. We have just completed our first season which has seen us purchasing almost 25 tons of cherries (which equals approx. 5 tons of dry, green, export-ready beans) paying more than £10,000 direct to our farmers – on time, with official receipts. We also hosted our buyers who after sampling the produce, confirmed their intention to purchase 4 tons of our green coffee at top specialty prices. We will then roast the remaining 1 ton and market the roasted coffee internally as well as to our networks of teams, visitors and supporters connected to JENGA. We do this so that we can generate maximum returns to the business and to our farmers. We plan to pay a bonus to our farmers in hungry season (April 2017), after the sale of our coffee – essentially giving the farmers a share of the profits at a time when they need it most.
This last season has again confirmed the viability of the business model, and we have seen enough evidence on the ground that there is significant potential to expand operations next season. Assuming we make our projected sales, and attract further investment we hope to construct another wet mill and increase on our purchasing next season. We will build slowly however, as the need to maintain and oversee top quality is paramount.
For more information, please see our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/zukukacoffee/