Connecting the coffee

Dotted amongst the green fertile hills of Southern Bwindi grows a little plant that we think may be bubbling with big potential. Coffee.
Once upon a time back in the 1960’s the Ugandan government together with an international organisation handed out coffee seedlings to some of the local people here – it grew well in this environment, but that’s where it stopped.

No knowledge was built with these local farmers around what to do with the coffee after harvesting or where these remote and generally uneducated people could find a market.

We’re now at the end of 2012 and nothing much has changed with that – there’s a few ad hoc plants remaining in the villages, one or two small-scale buyers taking fresh beans to faraway places at low prices and tourists continue to drink freeze-dried Nescafe!

Local people don’t drink coffee as the norm, honestly most tell us they don’t know that coffee beans can be drunk at all, or are aware about any use of it for that matter.

This is a crop that’s already here, ready to harvest. Personally I’ve always spotted the occasional coffee plant in various gardens but nothing on a large scale and have been really curious about the amount currently grown in this area. True to our ethos of identifying existing untapped opportunities as opposed to high financial investment initiatives, we recently set out on a mission to research and map what’s really going on. Firstly to see if there’s a big enough opportunity existing that just needs a bit of organisation and also to ensure any suggestions made to farmers set expectations at the right level.

Amongst other things our team are busy exploring different options to tap gaps in the tourism market that can benefit local people and link them into development and conservation based enterprises. More prosperous livelihoods and more involvement in the protection of Bwindi. These particular communities bordering Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are still relatively new to international tourists, unsure of their needs and everything that makes a holiday happen, and extremely unaware about what part the local people could play in gorilla tourism – direct or indirect. The sleeping, eating, drinking, buying souvenirs, participating in cultural or nature experiences in the area on top of seeing gorillas requires lots of products and services. Almost all of these things are taken care of by lodges and city tour operators and the vast majority of supplies shipped in from the inconvenient urban areas.

Anyway, we’re working on all of this, but coffee is a particularly interesting one because it could be a drink (that hotels generally need to provide), but also a unique gift that can be purchased direct from the local area and beyond, or even the production itself an experience for a visitor. This may not be huge plantations in the pipeline, that’s not the aim, but we’re working alongside interested locals to at least check it out and then decide where to take it next.

Let me tell you about another amazing volunteer. Big Beyond have been very happy to welcome the excellent Trevor Brownlow from the USA to the team who has stayed with us for two months here in Uganda. He’s just 19 yet has brought immense passion, drive, humour, adaptation and a big brain to help kick-start the coffee project. Sadly he’s leaving us soon but ready to pass the baton to the rest of the team and hopefully come back to see the fruits of his work one day soon.

We’ve learnt that this location here in Bwindi can produce some of the best quality coffee beans in the world. And, not only have we also learnt that there’s a lot more coffee dotted around than we imagined, and exactly where it is on our map, but the farmers are seriously eager to understand what the possibilities could be for their coffee beans that have proved to grow so well here.

Yes there’s the familiar skepticism we face amongst some individuals in the community about how this could be achieved without big donor investments or handouts, but there’s definitely a willingness in the air to experiment as a group and test the market.

There were assumptions that lots of cash was needed to do anything in our inaugural meeting, but the participants didn’t really know what to spend it on except an accounting book and pens. The concept is to start small, simple and take it from there. Hand roasting, grinding and local innovative packaging. Should be interesting.

When we soon finish estimating the size of the demand in the area we can work out the viable size of a co-op starting point. Eventually, perhaps this could become an enterprise the indigenous Batwa tribe would welcome and thrive in and we can scale it. That project may link very well with the community cafe and their Batwa education fund. We’re planning to work with a couple of our Batwa friends to help design sample packaging using their existing skills which we’re looking forward to as well.

So we’re all very excited about launching into the new year with another awesome initiative many of our volunteers will be helping to make a reality. It’s often about joining the dots. Or the beans?!

Rather than write too much more myself I’d like to share some thoughts and insight from Trevor himself…

“I will always remember my experience in rural Uganda, and I have immense gratitude to have participated in what has been one of the most worthy of causes. I’ve been generously welcomed into homes, shared traditional sorghum drink (obushera) with village elders, enjoyed dinners with different families, and have even been accepted as more than a guest, but as a son, by Ugandan mothers and fathers. I’ve been on a seven-hour hike in Bwindi to visit the Nkoringo gorilla family, whisked along rough roads on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle taxi), and celebrated Christmas with the many Ugandans who have become my friends and family. This journey has filled my heart, bettered my mind, and fulfilled my greatest dreams. It’s my hope that others may receive the same blessing of traveling the world, defining for themselves what it means to be a global citizen, and making differences that live after us.” (Enterprise Volunteer Trevor, 19, USA)

“When I was sitting in a university lecture hall two months ago, I never would’ve guessed I’d end up in rural Uganda just a few weeks later.  I began the first semester of my second year at UNC-Chapel Hill with steady momentum, but in early October, I felt an insatiable craving to explore the world and learn beyond the classroom walls.

I knew I had to follow my heart, so I took a hiatus from college life and began to plan my next steps. After spending a couple of weeks and countless hours researching the myriad pathways for global engagement, I discovered Big Beyond, a new British organization offering conservation-centered volunteer placements in three African countries. I immediately felt there was no better way for me to learn about my world than to give my time as a volunteer and create sustainable changes in the lives of others.

Loving what I learned about Big Beyond’s mission, I had no doubt that it was a perfect fit. I admired how different it is from the dime-a-dozen volunteer organizations that give out a few checks or launch a project that festers; instead, it goes beyond handouts and offers a type of support built to last—intellectual capital.

The best opportunity for me to make a mark on the world, I believed, was to give myself to a big cause with a timeless impact—making opportunities possible by accelerating the knowledge, skills, and talent of local communities. I selected the “Developing Community Enterprise” placement in the village of Nombe, Uganda, because I have a strong passion for business and employing innovation and entrepreneurship as long-term solutions for global poverty.

By mid-November, I was on a plane bound for Africa. I was both enthusiastic and anxious about my first trans-Atlantic crossing and my first footsteps on African soil, but my eagerness to immerse myself in a different culture, meet remarkable people, and forge lifelong friendships far outweighed my fears.

After more than twenty total hours of travel, including flying and driving, I found myself several thousand miles away from my hometown of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and in a rural African village. The transition was surreal. I had left behind a small, coastal community and journeyed to the verdant, lush mountains of Uganda, living at the border of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

I’ve never felt more at home in a faraway place. When I walk along the unpaved, muddy road to the nearby trading town of Rubuguli, every person I encounter offers a warm smile, a wave, and an “Agandi?” (a traditional Rukiga greeting), to which I give a “Nigye.”

The Africa I’ve experienced is a lot different from the one we’re used to seeing in the B-roll footage of a television commercial as a celebrity voiceover plays, urging us to “Give Now” to Charity X. While many of these appeals are legitimate, they offer only a very small lens to view an entire continent. I’ve met villagers with bandwidth—they’re motivated, optimistic, and immeasurably driven to learn. Their entrepreneurial spirit is universal. Ambitious dreams require an equally ambitious work ethic, and the women and men I’ve met posses both.

Over the course of my two-month placement (I return to the U.S. the first weekend of January), I’ve been researching the current and historical trends of coffee production in several local towns and villages. I quickly found that while the Ugandan highlands produce some of the finest Arabica beans in the world, there has been a persistent problem of finding a steady market and selling at good prices. Since the efforts of the farmers have always been fractured and there’s been little to no organization, they’ve lacked proper training and have resorted to selling to a local trader buying the crop at artificially low prices.

With these findings, my goal became clear—I would start an organic coffee cooperative. It would link the growers to larger, higher paying markets, leverage their collective bargaining power, strengthen their knowledge and skills, and capture the entire value chain at a local level (like fire-roasting and packing on-site).

I’d visited a thirteen-member women’s coffee cooperative during a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park, and the group had amazing success selling its roasted blends through the Volcanoes Safari Lodge, an eco-resort built out of a former coffee plantation.

I began by interviewing thirty growers spread throughout several communities. With a Big Beyond translator helping me along, I visited the home of each grower and asked questions about their production methods and selling opportunities. The results were consistent. The growers loved cultivating coffee but faced a wall when selling it.  One villager, Bernard Bacuro, grew coffee in the 1950’s but it lacked a market. In our interview, he leaned forward and whispered, “We were so poor,” pausing, “that we lived like wild animals.” Even with this adversity, the growers noted that coffee is the most desirable to harvest because it can be “intercropped” with the vegetables that feed their families. In addition, they said, coffee sells at the best price—even above tea—and can generate an income that could pay their children’s school fees, improve their home, allow for a more varied diet with store-bought foods, open investment opportunities for dairy cows, and help to pay for healthcare.

To build a strong foundation for the project, I met with the founder of a highly successful dairy cooperative in Rubuguli, one that President Museveni himself had visited and to which he donated the first twenty cows. He described the many ingredients that made the organization great and that too would drive the success of the coffee cooperative. Financial transparency, international relationships, consensus planning and decision making, he shared, form the backbone of an effective group. I had observed other community organizations that were financially feckless, not fiduciary, so I understood why he emphasized high levels of accountability to members and other stakeholders.

The second block of my research was geared toward the demand side. After dozens of interviews with lodge owners, investors, and local businesspeople, I learned that selling and serving through the lodges and getting packaged coffee onto store shelves in the larger towns with high tourist traffic would be lucrative.  In recent years, Uganda has benefitted from a large increase in the number of visitors annually, so I knew the timing was right.

I organized the first growers’ meeting a few days before Christmas Eve in a classroom at Nombe Primary School, and we squeezed in at desks arranged in a circle. The roundtable discussion was promising; the twelve women and eighteen men were thrilled about the cooperative and they are proud to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Our next meeting is set for the first week of January, and it will be my last chance to meet with the group before returning to the United States. Big Beyond will continue to nurture the group through the skills of its many volunteers arriving throughout 2013 and offer support through its newly constructed business resource center in Nombe. I have faith that the cooperative will not only survive, but that it will thrive. To merge our commitment to environmental sustainability with conservation of Bwindi, we’re even exploring the possibility of a partnership with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and we look forward to seeing what doors that collaboration could open.  In addition, we’re hoping to extend involvement in coffee production to the Batwa people, a group of former foragers evicted from Bwindi in 1964. They represent less than 0.5% of the population around the national park, and they have been socially, economically, and culturally marginalized for decades. We are optimistic that the Batwa will be empowered by the opportunity to join in with a seat at the table.”

(Volunteer Trevor Brownlow, USA)

Positions are open now for willing volunteers keen to work towards developing this enterprise or within similar initatives. There’s a lot of work to do for people knowledgeable about human resources, management, finance, marketing, branding, business consultancy, agriculture and horticulture, tourism… contact answers@bigbeyond.org for more information or check out www.bigbeyond.org