I’ll confess; I’m a coffee addict. Or maybe a coffee connoisseur is a better description (and fancier terminology). Back in the UK, I would regularly use coffee as an excuse for socializing and exploring new areas of London. Cappuccino at London Fields with a school friend on Saturday, a strong Americano with my flatmate on Sunday when recounting the events of the night before… any social meeting could combine good chats and even better coffee. Unfortunately, my interest in artisan coffee did have its drawbacks, particularly on my finances, as three pound artisan Monmouth coffees became an expensive regularity in my hectic London life.
Fast forward to March, arriving disorientated in Kampala with 27 other volunteers. As I wake up the first morning, a toxic combination of jetlag and sleep deprivation demand a strong cup of coffee to function in the upcoming day. As I stagger into the canteen, I see big vacuum flasks of Chai Masala milky tea, but no coffee. NO COFFEE?! And so began my experience of Ugandan coffee drinking… i.e. they don’t really drink it!
Coffee consumption in Uganda is currently approximately 6%, a tiny proportion considering that the beans are one of the largest exports within the country. Despite global prices dropping since 2008, it remains one of the highest value cash crops grown in the country. In 2014, the industry was worth 20-30% of all Ugandan foreign exchange earnings (money gained from exportation). The industry is predominantly based on exporting the raw coffee bean, with only 5% of coffee retained within the country for roasting and selling domestically. Profit margins are therefore low, with most of the value of coffee held in the final parts of the processing chain (roasting and selling packaged coffee).
It is against this backdrop that Prima (my Ugandan counter-part) and I were introduced to the business ‘Coffee Quality Assurance’, fronted by the enthusiastic business owner, Tonny Bocana. CQA is a café at Kyambago University, one of Kampala’s large universities. The café, entitled ‘My Checkmate Coffee House’ sells freshly made artisan coffees, roasted coffee packets and coffee liqueur to students and staff at the university. It also sells fresh mango and orange juice and delicious local food – beef/peas/beans with the classic Ugandan combination of plantain (matoke), pocho (maize), rice and sweet potato. YUMMY! On our first day working at the café, we were met with a steaming cup of coffee (black Americano, uncomplicated and flavorsome) and our smiling business owner, Tonny. I ask him what his favourite coffee is and he gestures to the cup in my hand.
‘Why?’ I enquire…
‘…because it is black like the devil, sweet as an angel and hot as hell’ he replies with a grin.
I can’t argue with that!
Tonny is a true coffee enthusiast, speaking knowledgeably about the different types of coffee, where they are sourced and the coffee production. Our mission (which can sometimes feel like a mission impossible) is to identify key areas within the business that can be improved. One of the main problems the business is facing is a lack of awareness and knowledge about the different types of coffee that are available. To the average Ugandan, coffee is a bitter, hot, black Americano with a lot of sugar added (to remove the bitterness). Lattes, cappuccinos, mochas are unknown and are only available at very expensive, European-style cafes in the city centre (that charge the equivalent of two pound a cup at least!). Coffee is therefore seen to be expensive and undrinkable when compared to the sweet, milky Chai tea that is available everywhere for less than 10p a cup. Tonny plans to change this.
So for those who aren’t as enthusiastic about coffee as myself, or have not had the opportunity to work in a small coffee business in Uganda (probably most of you), here is a brief introduction to coffee production in Uganda. Coffee begins its life as a plant, with green leaves smattered with small berries. These berries each contain a coffee bean. When the berries are ripe (turning bright red), they are harvested manually, with the bean removed from its red skin and washed to remove the sweet sap surrounding it. This is the green coffee bean, which can be either Arabica or Robusta variety. They are then washed and dried (naturally or by machine) and sorted by size before roasting.
The finest coffee in Uganda is sourced from Mbale, the eastern region of the country. The beans tend to be grown by small-scale farmers, who grow the bean alongside other crops. The beans are then collated by unions and sold to coffee roasters. This is where Tonny sources his coffee, buying the highest quality beans from Mbale coffee unions. In the future, he plans to build direct relationships with small-scale producers, encouraging them to adopt sustainable farming practices and improve livelihoods. Watch this space!
Once bought, Tonny roasts the coffee using an industrial roaster (funded through an agro-business incubator), before sorting the coffee manually for badly roasted beans, called ears and corns. Arabica beans give a smooth, nutty flavor, whilst Robusta beans give a more intense, bitter coffee taste. At the coffee house, the two flavours are blended expertly to provide an intense flavour, with a smooth aftertaste – it is some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. And I’m not just saying that because I work there.
Since starting work, Prima and I have become coffee whizz kids. We can make all the classic coffees using the café’s snazzy espresso machine. Prima is even a bit of a coffee addict! Having tasted her first cup on our first day at the café, she now expertly grinds and prepares the finest foamy milk for the cappuccino. Her favourite coffee, after much sampling, is a macchiato – a black Americano with a small quantity of milk foam resting on top. Perfection in a cup!
Working at the business has certainly brought some real challenges, but also many inspiring moments. Highs include hosting all of the Challenges Worldwide volunteers at the café for my birthday [so many cappuccinos and a taste or two of coffee liqueur!] and attending a small to medium enterprise (SME) exhibition, hosted by the UNBS (Uganda National Bureau of Standards). Attended by the Minister of Trade and other important government officials, the event gave CQA the opportunity to showcase its product. Unbeknown to us, it was also the day to receive the UNBS Standards Certification Mark to the business! This means our coffee can be exported and sold to supermarkets and the wider market. Prima and I were able to accept the award on behalf of the business, gaining coverage on national TV and press – look out for us on the UNBS twitter feed!
However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing, with many challenges being faced throughout our time at the business. The discovery that the business’ financial records were inaccurate and incomplete delayed our work and created a large amount of confusion for a number of weeks. We also suffered many dispiriting meetings with government officials and organizations who struggled to listen and relate to the problems many small businesses in Uganda face. However, we are still smiling, and continuing to reach out to other NGOs and organizations. We also seem to have Tonny’s support in implementing a finance book for the business – small changes, big impact!
As for the lack of awareness and education – look out for ‘My Checkmate’ FB page and events at the coffee house coming your way soon. Delicious coffee needn’t be expensive.
To summarise – Ugandan coffee is truly excellent and is currently underappreciated in its own country. However, businesses like Coffee Quality Assurance are changing this trend. Ugandan coffee culture is growing, beginning with the young, affluent population. With passionate enthusiasts like Tonny working hard to raise awareness and serve high-quality coffee to Ugandans, it is likely consumption will continue to increase. Inhabitants of Kampala – look out for a ‘My Checkmate’ coffee house near you! Everyone else – do not fear…‘My Checkmate’ coffee may soon be available in Uganda and abroad for you to enjoy at home!
And there we are. Finished. Done. I’ve said enough…anyone want a coffee break??