Small holder farmers in Acoli sub region are joining commercial coffee growing, to fight poverty and secure their future.
Coffee was introduced in the region in 1999 as an alternative perennial crop to the traditional cotton, with the aim of fighting widespread household poverty resulting from years of unrest due to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency.
However, soon the conflict escalated, and thousands were forced into internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps and many coffee plantations were abandoned.
Only after the camps were closed in 2006 did returning farmers resume cultivation of the cash crop.
John Onyer, one of the farmers who took up cultivation of the crop, said he chose coffee farming because of its potential to serve as a retirement project.
Onyer, a Senior assistant Town Clerk in Anaka Town Council, Nwoya district, says he was first inspired to set up an income generation project in 2006, after visiting many agricultural projects in Kyankwanzi.
In 2016, exactly ten years after his visit to Kyankwanzi, Onyer started planting coffee.
“I realized that I spent a lot of time doing civil service work and yet I earned very little from it, compared to when I was doing my own business,” he said.
Sitting on a three-acre piece of land in Alero Sub-County in Nwoya district, Onyer’s coffee plantation will be ready for harvesting in November this year, and he is hopeful to that he will make good earnings since, he says, the market is readily available.
Moreover, he says that although he has not started selling his coffee yet, he has already recovered the money he invested in planting it after selling the bananas he planted to provide shade for the coffee.
“The best thing with bananas is that they mature fast, so we have recovered the money we injected in the coffee project, even though we are yet to harvest our first coffee beans,” Onyer said.
But as he prepares for his first coffee harvest, Onyer cannot help but note some of the challenges that come with growing the crop.
Not a bed of roses
According to Onyer, digging the holes to plant the coffee was the hardest part of the project because it requires one to dig holes two feet wide and deep for each plant, an unusual way of planting for people in the region. The problem was doubled because the same size of pits was required for bananas.
“This was very strange to our people [Acoli]. So, we had to look for labourers from Gulu Central Prison, but we were not satisfied with their work. We then contacted Forestry [department] and eventually got workers from West Nile,” he recounts.
Another challenge for coffee farmers in Acoli is the hot weather, which may cause plants to dry up during the time of digging the holes in February, and in November-December, when the crop is mature, or when one has to mulch the plants. Onyer said this harsh weather affected him greatly during the first two years of his project.
“Those years were terrible for me: I lost about one third of the acre of coffee plants I had at thetime.”
Over time, he has learnt valuable lessons.
“During dry season, one needs to do mulching and then keep constant watch of the plantation, lest fire falls on the mulch and scorches the plants,” Onyer said.
He says another big challenge facing coffee growers is that there is only one Extension worker per district, yet the number of farmers of the crop is growing and even others still want to join, but need lessons.
Dr. Tonny Kidega, the founder of the biggest Dairy farm in Acoli Sub-region, Gulu Country Diary, has also ventured into growing coffee.
After reading and consulting a lot about the crop, Kidega says he started planting coffee three years ago, and the plants have started bearing beans.
According to Kidega, the perception that coffee does not do well in Acoli prevents many from venturing into coffee farming. He, however, thinks that the sceptics are still using the “colonial ways” of planting coffee.
“When I went for coffee seedlings from officials from Operation Wealth Creation, they told me openly that I won’t succeed with it, but I am sure after a few years, they will use me as an example of the successful coffee farmers here,” a confident Kidega said.
The budding but enthusiastic coffee farmer advises that special care should be given to coffee plants at the beginning, so that they are not stunted.
“It consumes time, and that is what people don’t want, and yet when you tend to it for only three years, you will enjoy better yields in the subsequent years.”
In addition, Kidega, who has more than 40 dairy cows, advises coffee farmers to use urea, for their coffee plants to be healthy.
“I give enough water to my cows that in turn give me enough urine for my coffee. There is a certain amount of urea that must go in the ground for your coffee to be healthy,” he said.
Herbert Olwa, the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, UCDA worker attached to Nwoya district, advised farmers to plant their coffee early, and ensure that they follow all the practices like constant weeding, pruning, putting fertilizer, and putting at least 300 grams of urea per tree each year.
Olwa says although he is not certain about the number of coffee farmers in the sub region, there are farmers who have as big as 100 acres of coffee, especially in Nwoya district.
“In the last harvest, we got 15 tonnes of coffee, but that was from only the farmers who sell their coffee to us. Others sell direct to middlemen,” Olwa said.
A recent Ministry of Finance report indicates that Uganda’s coffee exports topped 5.1 million bags in the financial year 2019/2020, a 21% jump from the year previous, earning Uganda 1.8 trillion shillings, the highest figure the country has exported in a single financial year.