Dreaming of Coffee from the Mountains of the Moon

Dreaming of Coffee from the Mountains of the Moon

As close to the jungles of West Africa as it is to the savannahs of the East, Uganda has always seemed a little bit off the beaten track, a little more adventurous than her better known east African neighbours. So when Omwani offered me the chance to join a group of fellow UK roasters to visit their producer partners in Uganda’s Rwenzori mountains I simply jumped at the chance.

Landlocked, the country is bordered by Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo but don’t let this turbulent geopolitical location put you off. Uganda is an absolutely beautiful country and widely considered one of the best ecotourism destinations in Africa. Winston Churchill dubbed it the Pearl of Africa when he visited back in 1907, and the phrase has fittingly stuck with the Ugandan Tourist board to this day. 

Uganda’s wildlife is phenomenal, so much so that we often required armed guards to escort us back to our tents at night. Our coffee adventures included bats in the dining room (a fellow roaster had a snake in his bathroom!), bobbing about between crocs and hippos in a boat on the Kazinga channel and at one point running out of fuel in an open top jeep in the middle of a National Park famous for its tree climbing lions. Not to mention the fact that we pretty much drove past an elephant every time we ventured outside. Uganda is also home to more than half the world’s remaining endangered mountain gorillas (but that’s a whole other story).

Maybe it is the equatorial climate or its youthful exuberance (the average age of Ugandans is just 15 years old making this the youngest population in the world) but there is an amazing energy to the place. Flying in from a grey November in the Highlands to Entebbe was jolt to the senses to say the least. Most flights to Uganda from Europe stop off in Rwanda first and so by the time we landed in Entebbe it was the middle of the night. The airport was teeming with soldiers with Kalashnikovs as well as international health agencies (sadly due to a recent Ebola outbreak) while a tropical rainstorm added to the general air of chaos. Any feelings of disorientation were compounded by a city-wide power cut as I arrived at my hotel. But I awoke to sunshine and discovered Entebbe to be a wonderful, laid back place of low buildings and tropical gardens on the shore of the vast Lake Victoria.

As is the case in much of this part of the world everything is done on the street: Commuters and shoppers fly about on a sea of boda bodas (Uganda’s ubiquitous motorbike taxis, where a fare across town costs about 20p), food gets cooked up on open fires by the side of the road, tin shacks lining the potholed red dirt roads are topped with hand written signs declaring their wares – ‘pork joint’, ’coca cola’, ‘Rolex’ Ah, rolex, ask anyone who has ever lived in Uganda and they get almost misty eyed about this national treasure (not the expensive watch but rather a 50p omelette wrapped in a chapati and eaten on the street – ‘’rolled eggs” becoming “rolex”). 

Uganda is also a major producer of coffee. In fact the country ranks as the eighth biggest producer in the world and coffee plays an enormous part in its exports. Cultivation of coffee began in earnest in Uganda at the beginning of the 20th century and by the 1940s it was the country’s main export. The 1975 frost in Brazil caused coffee prices around the world to soar but because the Uganda Coffee board dictated the prices farmers could receive a lot of Ugandan coffee was traditionally smuggled across the border to be sold at higher prices. 

It is Robusta coffee that Uganda has been traditionally known for. This lower growing, more caffeinated, disease resistant and certainly more bitter tasting species is quite a contrast to the sweet high grown Arabica that we so love to roast and drink. Today as much as 80% of Uganda’s coffee production is Robusta—the coffee even grows wild on the shores of Lake Victoria. It’s no surprise then that Ugandan coffee hasn’t exactly had a reputation for quality over the years. However Arabica coffee is indeed cultivated in the country most notably on the slopes of Mount Elgon, in the West Nile region and in the Rwenzori mountains close to the DRC border. To be fair, Uganda has always had the conditions for quality coffee but not necessarily the infrastructure until recently.

We were visiting the Rwenzori coffee region, an area that Omwani has close ties to. Owner James had lived and worked here in the past and what a treat it was to travel to this remote part of Uganda.  Snowcapped and glaciated, the highest peaks of the Rwenzori mountain range top out at 5,100 metres above sea level. Rivers fed by mountain streams ultimately form the upper reaches of the Nile and so these mystical mountains are widely considered to be the fabled Mountains of the Moon.

Most coffee produced in the Rwenzoris is grown between 1,200m to 2,200m above sea level  on small family run farms or ‘shambas’ of a few hectares in size.  A typical shamba usually consists of a small house made of mud bricks with a tin roof surrounded by a lush garden where coffee (the cash crop) grows alongside banana, avocado, cassava, ‘Irish’ potatoes, passion fruit, onions and other subsistence crops.  A number of entrepreneurial farmers in the region are also starting to grow vanilla as well which can fetch high market prices. Families will probably keep several goats and maybe a pig and some chickens too. As you can imagine we were greeted by a cacophony of noise as we walked past each of these homesteads. 

The variety of Arabica coffee grown in this part of Uganda is the excellent SL28 and SL14 varietals and farmers can pick up saplings from local nurseries for about 500 shillings (10p). There are generally two harvests a year in the Rwenzoris, between March to May and between October to December during which the ripe, red coffee cherries are picked by hand. The farmers bring their day’s pickings to a number of nearby coffee collection stations. The tracks from the farms to the collection stations are often so steep and rough that the coffee has to be delivered on the backs of donkeys or boda bodas. Once they get to the stations the ‘cherries’ are weighed and the farmer is given a buying receipt. Towards the end of the day all the coffee at the collection stations will then get loaded onto trucks (gaily bedecked and religiously titled) to be taken down at high speed, horns beeping and red mud flying, to the Agri Evolve wet mill at Nyaburinga.

The Agri Evolve mill was in full swing when we visited late in the evening. In November, the Rwenzori harvest is at its peak and as the trucks arrived their cargos of beautiful red coffee cherries were crated up and tipped into large tanks of water before being de-pulped and entering the fermentation tanks. The natural processed coffees (those that are dried in their fruit) were laid out on raised beds to be dried by the African sun. Both the naturals and the fully washed coffees are turned regularly to ensure even drying, a process that can take about three weeks. 

Uganda’s “official” languages are English and Swahili, and I’d dutifully spent the two months leading up this trip frantically practicing my Swahili on Duolingo. But it turns out that no-one really speaks Swahili in Uganda at all (note to self… do not rely on Wikipedia for pre-trip research) rather there are over 70 different spoken languages in the country. ‘Bukonzo’ is the language spoken by the coffee producers of the Rwenzoris and this is why Omwani (which incidentally means ‘coffee’ in Bukonzo) have named the delicious natural processed coffee produced at Agri Evolve’s station “Bukonzo Dream”.

We’re delighted to be bringing this coffee to Scotland and it’s incredible to think that the  harvest we were witnessing back in November has since been dried and processed, hulled and sorted, survived a three week truck journey to Mombasa and a month at sea and has finally arrived here at our roastery in Scotland for us to roast and share with you. We sincerely hope you enjoy our Bukonzo Dream as much as we do!

words:Fiona Grant