Last month, the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) closed more than 200 coffee processing plants in the Masaka sub-region to the ire of farmers in the area.
UCDA's action was facilitated by the falling competitiveness of Uganda's coffee on the world market, owing to its poor quality.
The quality is largely compromised during harvest and post-harvest, a stage where farmers and coffee buyers add impurities such as stones and animal waste to gain additional weight.
To maintain good quality, farmers have to harvest only ripe red coffee berries and dry them on raised platforms, away from bare ground.
As it moved to enforce the standards, UCDA, with the help of the police, arrested a number of farmers, traders and haulers for harvesting and processing green berries.
To eliminate such practices, Mathias Kasamba, a coffee farmer and one of Uganda's representatives to the East African Legislative Assembly, says government needs to ensure farmers access cheaper credit so that they can avoid being in a desperate situation of falling for the small amounts of money that middlemen offer for unripe berries.
“The harvest of unripe berries is due to various financial challenges. What government needs to do is to ensure that farmers have access to cheaper financial services to enable them put up good drying and storage facilities," Kasamba said.
He was speaking on July 13 during the launch of a coffee grading facility at Ssanje in Kyotera district. The plant, Hope Coffee, buys, processes and grades the coffee for export to the Netherlands, USA and Germany.
"Middlemen approach farmers when the coffee is at the flowering stage and pay them so that they don't sell to any other. Because the middleman is only mindful about reaping back the money he paid to the farmer, he doesn't mind about the best harvesting practices; he picks everything, whether the coffee is ripe or not," Kasamba said.
But with improved funding to UCDA, Kasamba is optimistic its supervisory roles will improve.
"UCDA used to get Shs 800m but its budget allocations have since increased to Shs 60bn, which should improve its supervision and inspection of farmers, as well as distribution of good quality seeds so that we can realize the country's target of exporting 20m bags annually," Kasamba said.
Hope Coffee has mobilized about 2,000 farmers that are selling directly to it in a bid to maintain the right quality for the world market. Its agriculturalists work with farmers to ensure adherence to the right farming practices as well as harvest and post-harvest handling of the coffee.
The farmers have also been trained on how to overcome drought, one of the biggest obstacles to coffee farming. According to Fred Ssekyewa, its proprietor, the farmers are also given credit facilities that enable them to buy farm inputs and implements to improve their yields.
This, Ssekyewa said, was after he realised farmers were struggling to access markets that buy their coffee at competitive prices. Vincent Ssemakula Ssettuba, the senior presidential advisor on Buganda local governments, said it is time government revived cooperative societies.
“The collapse of the cooperative movement was a big blow to fathers because many farmers are now selling at almost give-away prices. And there is no way you can expect them to improve their farming practices because the government agricultural system collapsed. You can't find extension farmers at the sub-counties or even at the districts," he said.
Hope Coffee's Shs 2bn facility joins Kibinge Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society in Bukomansimbi district in offering better prices for coffee farmers in the sub-region.
Besides exporting its coffee to the Netherlands, Kibinge Coffee also roasts and processes coffee for the local market, which is something that Hope Coffee wants to focus on next.