On a sweaty afternoon in a facility about an hour north of Ugandan capital Kampala, Richie Rugaya and his colleagues are busy showing off their coffee-making skills. It might seem commonplace enough to watch someone making a latte, but not here.
“You can count the number of espresso machines in Uganda on your hands,” laughs Rugaya. Coffee is something of a sacred crop in this landlocked country but only about 4 per cent of Ugandans drink it, with most preferring tea, a legacy of having the English as rulers from 1894 to 1962.
Uganda is among the largest coffee growers in the world but that’s not something most people outside this country are aware of. While it does produce some great beans, it typically exports poor quality robusta that usually ends up as instant coffee.
Plans are afoot to change this, with some local entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the global demand for good-quality coffee by producing better arabica and robusta beans. And, instead of just shipping the beans abroad, there are plans to ensure they are roasted and bagged locally so that more jobs can be created, and profits remain at home.
“We want to move from commodity to speciality,” says Rugaya, founder and chief executive of Gorilla Highlands (GoHigh) Coffee. “Roasting has typically been done in Europe due to an assumption that we didn’t have the right skills or hygiene levels, but we’re trying to change this. Because if roasting is done in Uganda, then 90 per cent of the money stays with the community in which the beans are grown.”
The social enterprise is headquartered in Kisoro, a western town near the Virunga Mountains and close to the borders of both Rwanda and the Democractic Republic of Congo. While its primary focus is on protecting the silverback mountain gorillas that live close by, it is also working with more than 1,200 coffee farmers to produce better coffee both for consumption at home and abroad.