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Lessons from Uganda

This year.

This year - I will write more.

This year - I will listen more.

This year - I will learn more.

This year - I will spend more time around the dining table with the people I love more.

I feel as though I have just emerged from hibernation.

How is it the end of April already?


I won’t say much about 2023, other than, “You went too quick”.

I made some interesting decisions in 2022 that saw 2023 become a convenient exercise in figuring shit out, and this has landed me here.

I turned 40 in December, left a place of great significance in my life to pursue another, and travelled to places I had only ever explored in the pages of paperbacks.

I wanted to be free, I wanted to have metaphorical love affairs, and I wanted to push every door until I found a window.

I found that window.


And here I am, putting down the first words of 2024 in this hotel room in Uganda.

Man, I love East Africa, I whisper to myself from the 7th-floor balcony as I watch the sunset over the city.

I’m not sure how this trip will go.

I like to travel alone.

There are 11 people on this bus…

Mount Elgon, I’ve heard so much about you and your fruit.

I have a feeling this will be an interesting week…



My first purchase of Ugandan coffee feels like an age ago, I will admit my knowledge of the country was pretty limited back then, and to be honest, my knowledge of the industry and the mechanics that drive it were also pretty narrow.

It took a virus and a black frost to look at softs.

I’d heard stories of this country but none worth writing home about. The general discourse was one of slow roads, slow boats and Robusta.

Looking back I owe a lot to this land-locked country that shares its borders with the sweethearts of East African coffee.

Little did I know it would lead me here.

To this hotel room.

In Kampala.


My invitation from the International Trade Council came via email on November 2nd at 13:53 pm, James had told me to expect it.

The email went something like this:

The ITC is a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, fully dedicated to supporting small businesses in developing countries to trade. ITC focuses on equipping micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to become more competitive in global markets. We offer small businesses, policymakers and business support organisations in developing countries in an array of trade-related practical training, advisory services, and a wealth of business intelligence data. We help micro, small and medium-sized businesses become more competitive and help to create better regulatory environments for trade. We are empowering women, youth and refugees through jobs. Through our programmes, projects, services and data, we are helping drive digital connectivity and a global transition to green, sustainable trade. The United Kingdom Trade Partnerships Programme (UKTP) is designed to ensure countries maximize the benefits of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). The UK Trade Partnerships Programme is funded by the Government of the UK through the Foreign, Commonwealth &Development Office (FCDO). The programme will run until 31 March 2023. This programme will increase exports under the agreements by increasing awareness of firms and institutions on how to access the UK/EU markets and better identifying trade obstacles across all Official Development Assistance eligible EPA countries. It will also build the ability of targeted firms/products to export to UK/EU markets in eight selected country pilots. Uganda Buyer Tour The purpose of the trip is for UK based roasters & importers to experience the qualities of Ugandan coffee through visits to farms, processing works and exporters and meet and interact with producers, processors and exporters. The overall objective is to foster business relationships and to promote specialty coffee from Uganda in the UK market. Therefore we would like to formally invite you on the trip which is due to take place in early January 2024.


I was a little shocked.

Why was the International Trade Council inviting me?

Maybe all of these years slurping and selecting coffee for its quality had finally paid off.

Or maybe it has something to do with timing.

My move from the roasting side of the industry to the importing side has been a speedy one and although 2023 was supposed to be about testing the water I have somehow managed to become submerged.

Neck deep and treading water.

I accepted the invitation.

I was, after all, about to represent a group of people who work very hard investing in the current coffee supply routes out of East Africa.

Plus, I was going to use this trip to see just how important the specialty coffee sector really is to the future of this industry and Africa in general.


I love a good tourist bus. My arse on the other hand, does not.

To do this job you need to be good at sitting for hours and contemplating life. What does help however is when the view out of your window is as beautiful as the changing landscapes of rural Africa whizzing by.

My first trip to Uganda was in 2021. The circumstances were very different then.

My previous life as a buyer of coffee for a roasting company allowed me the opportunity to travel however, I often felt like a tourist.

I was adamant back then that my buying decisions needed to have a longer-term strategy and that my purchases needed to provide more than just a business transaction. I found that in Uganda.

It was the first coffee-growing country that provided me the opportunity to invest longer and although the quality of the coffee was nowhere near as good as what I could buy from any spot position within the UK, I could taste that there was huge potential.

I was also interested in the idea of commitment and contracts which were somewhat rare in the specialty industry at the time.

This took time.

Proving difficult at first, the idea of sacrificing quality and focusing energy on the broader idea of long-term investment for an uptick in quality further down the road seemed like an alien concept to the majority of people I spoke to.

Spot was king and contracts for low-volume operators were unfortunately not worth the paper they were written on.

A larger purchase was needed, and luckily I managed to find a partner in Uganda to work with.

It was the first time my transactions felt intentional.

This coffee was from the west of the country which borders with the Congo, Far away from the coffee grown in the East with the mills and the Multinationals in Kampala.

That is why this trip interested me.

I knew the East of the country was about to teach me a few lessons…


We rolled out of Kampala like a group of students on a field trip.

The people on this bus were good humans.

There was the old school, the new school, and the in-between.

Some passengers more commercially minded and some with little experience. We got on board and bounced along with something to share, something to learn, and something to gain.

The itinerary was packed and the visits were a mixed bag of Warehouses, mills, exporters, producer groups, and charities.

A good overview of what this beautiful country had to offer.


The Ugandan coffee sector was liberalised in the early 90’s.

Private investment dominates here.

Uganda is the second-largest coffee-exporting country in East Africa, however the majority of this - was, and still is Robusta.

DRUGAR (DRied UGandan ARabica) is a close second and has been deemed one of the lowest quality forms of Arabica traded within the coffee sector.

There has been a huge effort to change the mindsets of the more quality-focused buyers that Uganda has the potential to produce outstanding quality but as I suggested earlier, there needs to be an investment made upfront.

The price dictated for this grade of Arabica has been historically low - usually traded on a differential of .40c below the market price and is one of the main reasons Ugandan coffee has a poor reputation amongst many.

Meaning many farmers have decided that coffee is just not worth the input, understandably…

This grade is still traded heavily on today’s market but the overall idea is to provide access for farmers to sell their cherries to the wet mills who should be paying fair prices for the delivery of ripe fruit.

Uganda is vast, with the main growing regions in the East and the West of the country. Many of the operators have set up buying stations, collection points, and central processing satiations closer to the source to make these transactions easier.

over the last 5-6 years Uganda has seen a big rise in quality due to some of these practices and investments but more work is still needed to convince the farmers that this way of business is secure and sustainable.

More money also needs to be invested back into the seed stock, the local communities, and the country’s infrastructure to see a substantial change in the mindsets of many, especially the coffee farmers.

Some businesses are investing heavily.

Uganda certainly has the perfect growing environment to achieve quality at scale.

We just need to see more companies switch their focus to the long game.

Very difficult in a quick buck, low margin, volatile economy.

This will not happen overnight.


I think anyone in this sector needs to visit one of the many privately owned mills and washing stations in any coffee-growing country, you soon realise that the country relies heavily on its infrastructure.

Plant machinery on any scale is an expensive investment and access to it is crucial.

We visited the Multi-Nationals in Kampala and Mount Elgon, and although not the channels I would choose to buy my coffee from, I was surprised to see a large investment in R&D that was heavily focused on the specialty sector.

I can’t vouch for the price they are paying for cherry but I do know that a lot of the coffee purchased from Uganda has most definitely spent some time here.


You won’t be shocked to learn that the visits I looked forward to and gained the most from were the independently owned and operated washing stations and processing facilities that focused solely on quality.

I don’t want to speak for the group but I have a feeling this is what the majority of them were here for.

Alternative business structures that were quality focused and some even farmer-owned and operated.

Atmospheres certainly change when you are surrounded by humans who have a mission.

Quality focus is incredible to witness…


This industry is incredibly nuanced and I still find myself unable to understand some of its intricacies.

Trips like this give me a better insight and some hope that the specialty industry has a future.

This is often tested at times but, I am now more than ever, focused on the idea of commitment as the deciding factor of this future.

Every country we buy coffee from will have slightly different rules and regulations that define its success.

The world is a turbulent place to exist in but compromising quality for short-term gain is certainly not the answer.

My big takeaway from this trip has been that the industry relies heavily on multiple actors within its supply chain to produce and deliver the final product.

Making sure you are working with the right people who align with your values is the crux.

Ask for the data, ask for prices paid to farmers, ask for chain of custody, ask to see where profits are going, ask for impact reports, ask to visit and see for yourself.

If this can’t be provided, ask why not.

But in return commit to the relationship, commit to the purchase, commit to building in some security for all of the people and businesses who are operating on very thin margins.

your commitment is someone’s future investment.

Loyalty will see you in a better position in the long term.

Quality will always win.


This article has taken me months to write.


Because once again I am back at the start.

I am back to knowing nothing.

I am once again.



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