Visiting Coffee Producers in the Rwenzori Mountains

Reflecting on our Uganda Trip

On 8th October, we finally visited the home of our Ugandan coffees. From the moment we sat down with Martin and had our first conversation over coffee five years ago, I knew that this was a business we could align ourselves with to make some real and positive changes to the way coffee is traded.

For roasters who have strong sourcing relationships in place, travel should play an integral role in building shared objectives, allowing for the opportunity to have open dialogue around the current challenges both parties face, and the opportunity to provide valuable feedback. The focus should hopefully be that all involved work towards the common goal of investing in and supporting the communities they serve.

Visiting Coffee Farmers in the Rwenzoris

A Brief History of Ugandan Coffee

Around 80% of Ugandan coffee production is Robusta. However, the rich and fertile soils and the high elevations of Mt. Elgon in the east and the Rwenzori mountains in the west have the potential of producing some of East Africa's finest Arabica coffees. Over the last 20 years, there has been substantial investment into these areas, and Ugandan Arabica is very much on the rise. This is partly due to the Ugandan government's liberalisation of the country's coffee sector in the early 1990s, allowing privately owned farms and facilities to start marketing their products and opening the door for overseas investment into coffee.

Why Agri Evolve?

Agri Evolve has been operating in the Rwenzoris for almost a decade and has just recently completed construction on a state-of-the-art coffee processing facility in the Kasese District. Their ACE2030 Project focuses on agriculture, community and the environment, forming a 10-year road map that will reinvest in these three core pillars over time, creating a sustainable business model that will have long-lasting positive impacts on the Agricultural communities they partner with.

A Tree Nursery supported by Agri Evolve, managed by Milton (right)
Meeting with Milton, who manages the shade tree nursery that is integral to the ACE2030 project.

Rounton Coffee's green coffee philosophy is straightforward. We want to build and maintain meaningful relationships with everyone we buy coffee from. Ultimately, we want to ensure that people and the planet are never overshadowed by the desire for profit. Robust relationships, fostered over time should lead to transparency and ultimately, sustainability. This trip was our chance to see the results of the relationship's growth over the last five years.

Reflecting On The Trip

You always wish for more time... As I arrived in Entebbe, the 10-day timer was already ticking loudly in my head. The first leg of the journey was a 10-hour road trip through the south of the country, briefly catching glimpses of Lake Victoria along the way.

We then headed West towards the DRC border, seeing the impact of agriculture on the country's landscape. We passed tea plantations, rice fields and low-lying coffee farms as we snaked through the lush and green landscape. After a few rest stops, which included lots of snacks of fresh mangoes and grilled matoke (a starchy banana varietal), we finally entered the flat plains of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. We were particularly fortunate to see a lone grazing Elephant just as the sun was setting. We then made it through the National Park and embarked in Kisinga town, directly at the foothills of the Rwenzoris. 

The next 9 days were jam-packed: we started by meeting the Agri Evolve team and were given an access-all-areas pass to the new processing facility. The harvest season was well underway when we landed, and coffee was being delivered constantly to the factory. It was busy, hot and the smell of coffee cherries drying on the raised beds was intoxicating...

The field teams were holding their morning meetings when we arrived; we were introduced to the team leaders who would accompany us on our community visits. We had the opportunity to sit down and discuss some objectives with the team and learn a little more about the work that was taking place within the farming communities. Lots of success stories were shared, and some real challenges discussed – climate change seemed to be a critical topic. The season had gotten off to a bad start as the area had been unusually dry for this time of year.

Rain is crucial for promoting the flowering of the coffee trees, so this was a concern for the farmers. We also planned our visits for the coming days and planned our itinerary and travel by motorbike. I was also excited to learn that we would be making the journey to Ibanda to visit the farms and producer groups of the area. This was one of our first coffees from Uganda and one of the reasons we saw so much potential in the coffee.

As we settled in and spent a few hours wandering around the factory watching the teams, we saw the process in action. We witnessed the floating tanks in action for their first run. You might have seen some of my footage whilst I was out there - it still surprises me the amount of work that goes into producing quality coffee. It was an honour to be allowed to venture into every corner of the processing facility and another reason why we are proud to be working with Agri Evolve. The openness and transparency of their approach are something we really admire.

The first day ended with a visit to Yesse and Sam's (father & son) plot not far from the factory. Here we got to see some of the new planting models taking shape. One of the objectives of Agri Evolve is to promote the growth of coffee trees and varieties using agricultural practices that will produce healthy young trees with good yields using agroforestry practices that are sympathetic to the native climate.

So many of the projects promoted by Agri Evolve provide training and resources for farmers to implement good agricultural practices that will benefit future generations. It was very positive to see Yesse and Sam working together on this project. So much of coffee's future relies on the younger generation taking an active role in the sector's development: Sam was keen to develop new and innovative ways of working on his family's farm.

Katanda, Kalingwe & Ibanda

The next few days shot by in a flash, and our first community visit was to the Katanda region of the Rwenzoris. Katanda community coffee is very much at the heart of Rounton Coffee and is where we buy a large amount of coffee from. I was very much looking forward to sitting on some of the VSLA (Village savings and loans association) group meetings as I knew I would have the opportunity to share with the farmers our appreciation and love for the coffee they are growing.

We made this journey by foot, climbing from 1200-1650masl. It gave me an appreciation of how difficult it is to navigate the terrain of the Rwenzoris and highlighted the incredibly fertile land underneath my feet.

We also visited the community groups of Kalingwe and Ibanda and got to see first-hand the positive impact in these areas. It was also apparent that the focus on coffee production was starting to provide access to training and jobs for the younger generation. The establishment of native tree and coffee nurseries aided in job creation; we got to visit a number of these projects, run by local communities.

As the trip came to an end, I managed to grab some time with Jonny Rowland, the young man behind this transformative business. I wanted to understand what motivated him to dedicate the last 10 years of his life to the agricultural communities of western Uganda.

Meeting with Jonny Rowland and Charles Marahi
Meeting with Jonny Rowland and Charles Marahi

We discussed everything from the C-market and its impact on sustainability to the future of Agri Evolve and its dedication to raising the profile of Ugandan coffee. Jonny's whole philosophy revolves around positive impact created over time and how investment should mobilise and incentivise communities to become autonomous collectives that promote coffee production as a viable future. He is very aware of the current system and the need for radical change.

What Comes Next?

We came away from this trip with a newfound admiration for the communities and people who drive this mission forward. Coffee is a complex world, and as I dive deeper I find myself repeating the phrase, 'the more I learn, the less I understand'. Travelling to coffee-growing countries and visiting the communities that rely so heavily on coffee as a source of income will always provide a mixed bag of emotions.

On these trips, we're reminded of the fragile nature of agriculture in an ever-increasing volatile climate, but this is often coupled with the hard work, hope and dedication of farmers to produce quality crops.

I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful for the opportunity to play a small role in sharing the stories and the beautiful coffee from these communities. Travelling, learning and immersing yourself in a new culture has a way of focusing the mind and strengthening the mission. It also leaves a lot to think about, reinforcing that coffee has a long way to go before it is truly equitable for all involved.

We at Rounton Coffee want to thank the Rowlands for all their hard work and for allowing us to be a part of their journey. I have huge admiration for your dedication. I also have a sneaky feeling that I will be back very soon.

In the meantime, you can support our relationship with Uganda and the ACE2030 Project here. 60p from every kilo of green coffee we buy goes directly to supporting tree planting and community initiatives. At the time of writing, we've pledged enough to plant 4000 new trees in 2022 alone.