Uganda is known widely as ‘the Pearl of Africa’ for its magnificent fauna and flora, the latter of which includes the country’s export of coffee; the most representative in the African continent. The quality of Ugandan coffee is exploring new levels thanks to the balance that has been found between production volume and technicalities. But how did that happen? In this article we will explore the reasons for Uganda’s success in coffee production, as well as the story behind each bean.
Uganda's Coffee Growing History
Robusta has been the main coffee export of Uganda throughout the country’s history, and for good reason: it originally grew native to the beautiful Lake Victoria, where it was cultivated by the local Baganda people and used for cultural ceremonies, along with its supposed medicinal factors.
It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, during British colonial rule, that British authorities introduced Arabica seeds in the Entebbe area, the headquarters of the government at that time. Though Arabica was highly profitable because of its subtle, varied flavours, the weakness to diseases, impurities, defects and climate change diminished its harvest, thus preventing the wider uptake of Arabica coffee as an exported crop.
Is Ugandan Coffee Good?
Traditionally Uganda is recognised as a Robusta producing origin. However, though the quantities of Arabica coffee produced are smaller, they are matched by the distinctive flavour properties of the area. The most outstanding cups of Ugandan coffee are sweet, full of dark fruits, and have a clean finish.
One of Uganda’s advantages is their 'flycrops', a smaller secondary harvest that affords producers the time to experiment with natural processes and extensive drying, coaxing out the characteristics that larger, busier harvests sometimes aren’t able to highlight. The qualities of this crop are a journey between the malolactic acidity of the wine, a more powerful body, heavy fruity notes, and the distinctive taste of chocolate.
Coffee Farming in Uganda
To grow coffee you need two things: a warm climate, and altitude. Uganda, naturally, has a tropical climate with two rainy seasons, and areas of higher land that range from 1600 to 2100 metres above sea level. This is important as Arabica coffee is more susceptible to disease and pests than Robusta, and one of the easier methods of avoiding this is by growing Arabica at higher altitudes, where disease and pests can’t survive.
Of course, most farmers tend to divide their land, and plant a range of crops with different harvesting times. This way they can receive income at intervals throughout the year, rather than getting a bulk sum all at once. Some farmers may choose to grow food crops that they themselves can eat for reasons of self sufficiency.
Like many other African countries, Arabica coffee is harvested by hand to ensure that only the ripest cherries are picked. Likewise, processing equipment tends to be small-scale, with cherries being continuously hand-sorted throughout each process to remove as many defects as possible. The more manual approach is due to the fact that much of Uganda’s coffee comes from smallholder farms that pool their harvests together in local cooperatives.
Where is Uganda's Coffee Grown?
Coffee growing in Uganda is divided between Robusta and Arabica. A large part of the country is in the business of producing Robusta, allowing it to be the African country with the highest volume of exported coffee. Also contributing to this is the fact that Uganda is one of the few producing countries with indigenous coffee plants, the same plants around Lake Victoria that the Baganda people valued so much.
Arabica coffee, however, is much more picky about where it can be planted, and so only certain regions meet the criteria for production.
The main Robusta production areas are located within a radius of 300km surrounding Lake Victoria, reaching towards western Uganda. These zones are characterised by altitudes between 900 and 1500 metres. The largest coffee production zone is found in the Rwenzori Mountains, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is usual to see DRUGARs (dry Ugandan Arabicas) or naturally processed coffees. There is also the West Nile, the north of which is a major producer of Robusta coffee.
Arabica production areas are located at a higher altitude, between 1300 and 2300 metres above sea level. Although it covers areas already mentioned in the production of Robusta, there are specific areas dedicated to specialty coffee, such as the hilly zones of the peaks of the Moon, a large part of the West Nile territory, and the jewel in the crown: the Bugisu. This last region has the best reputation for its quality, particularly the land around Mount Elgon, close to the Kenyan border, though the steep slopes and lack of infrastructure can be a challenge. This area has the soil, altitude and climate to produce excellent varieties.
Types and Varietals
The types and varietals of coffee in Uganda are relatively easy to classify. Both cultivated Robusta varietals are native to Uganda: 'Nganda' and ‘Erecta’. Nganda was the first variety after the great coffee epidemic of the 90's, which, together with Coffee Wilt Disease, caused the initiation of a research effort to find and cultivate a varietal that would be more resistant to future epidemiological attacks. Nganda has a typically high caffeine content, and a sweetness that is unusual for a Robusta coffee. Erecta is characterised by a sharp body and neutral flavour, but at the same time has a slight acidity thanks to the always visible pineapple and banana plantations around it.
Arabica coffee takes up the remaining 15% of the country’s coffee export volume, and though the percentage is low, the variety is high. Kent, Typica, SL-14, and SL-28 are the main exponents, and in turn are subclassified into WUGARs (washed Ugandan Arabicas) and the previously mentioned DRUGARs.
Ugandan Coffee Flavour Profile
The Flavour profile of Ugandan Arabica coffee presents an excellent balance between body and aroma. It has a refined and delicate acidity, fruity and ripe flavours with a slight sweetness, and in many of its exponents has a very characteristic chocolate note. On the Robusta side is a heavy-bodied coffee, in some cases creamy and with neutral flavours that are regularly attractive for blends in European countries and the United States.
When is Ugandan Coffee Harvested?
In the Bugisu zone, the main harvest takes place between October and March, with a flycrop harvest of May to July. In the West Nile, the main harvest is from October to January and the flycrop is from April to June. In Western Uganda the main harvest is from April to July, and the flycrop from October to January, completely contrary to the other zones. Finally, the central lowlands have their main crop between November and February with a flycrop between May and August.
How much Coffee does Uganda Produce?
During 2021, Uganda produced 4,800,000 60 kg bags, making it the eighth largest coffee producing country in the world. This in weight translates to 288,000 tons.
What is the Current Price of Coffee in Uganda?
The current price of Ugandan coffee ranges between 126.16 and 220.85 US Cents per lb. This price starts with the 18 screen robusta coffee, up to the arabica DRUGAR, which is the highest priced coffee of Ugandan origin.
The Uganda Coffee Development Authority
The Uganda Coffee Development Authority functions to promote, strengthen and register new producers, groups, or cooperatives of coffee farmers beyond the regulation of coffee production. Additionally, one of its most significant influences has come through work with other elements and areas of the coffee supply chain. The involvement of baristas, roasters, traders, exporters and economic alliances have allowed the handling of quantities such as 524,902 60-kilo bags during a month with prices of up to 5.00 USD per kilo thanks to the training, objectives and techniques that this institution has brought to the Ugandan coffee market.