Uganda: Coffee farmers struggle to maintain good harvests (The Monitor, IRIN)

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In a small store adjacent to her house, Ms. Ruth Namuli sorts and packs dry coffee beans into sisal bags, with the help of her two sons. Ms. Namuli is a resident of Mukono District, central Uganda, and has been a coffee farmer for over 20 years. She learned the business from her parents. She says, “Coffee paid my school fees and that of my other siblings. It has been and still is the main income activity that brings food on my table.”

As Ms. Namuli is talking, a truck enters her compound. It’s the traders for whom she has been waiting. They begin to weigh the coffee bags and load them onto the truck.

Ms. Namuli negotiates with a man named Haji Mukunya. He offers 30,000 Ugandan shillings for a 20-kilogram sack of coffee (about $US11), a rate of 1,500 shillings a kilo. Ms. Namuli says traders used to pay her parents 4,500 shillings per kilo. In an industry that was once the country’s leading export earner, the current picture is gloomy.

Haji Mukunya negotiates lower prices because his own costs have risen. He explains, “Fuel is so expensive. The charges at the coffee mill have gone up because of power rationing. [At] the mills which can afford generators, diesel to run them is too costly.”

Many factors contribute to a reduction in Uganda’s coffee output. As well as increased fuel costs, electricity is expensive and unreliable. Leaf rust disease has also caused a drop in production. To make a profit, Ms. Namuli has reduced the number of labourers she employs to weed and pick coffee beans. This has significantly affected output.

The recent landslides will also affect this season’s coffee output. About 140 hectares of coffee were destroyed by the August 29 landslides in Bulambuli and neighbouring districts in eastern Uganda. Forty people were reportedly killed by the landslides, many of whom were coffee producers.

Mr. Nathan Nandala Mafabi is Chairman of Bugisu Cooperative Union. He explains, “Landslides swept through the area burying coffee plantations and destroying about 60,000 coffee trees.” Small-scale farmers in Bulambuli District are the leading producers of Arabica coffee in Uganda. This recent blow could weaken national, and even global output of Arabica coffee.

The coffee season is ending this month, and volumes are lower than hoped. An unnamed industry expert commented, “We are anticipating a 2.8 million bag production this year, which is way below our target [of three million bags].” But with good rains in recent weeks, the latest reports indicate that the three million bag mark may well be reached.

Mr. Silver Malanga lost about one hectare of coffee trees in the landslide. He says, “I have been harvesting about 2,000 kilograms every season. This means that my children cannot go to school and I also can’t feed my family.”

For Mr. Malanga and some of his fellow coffee growers, coffee-related problems are much more immediate.