The Uganda coffee industry is grappling with the scandal surrounding a Shs 37 billion coffee consortium, but amidst the damning revelations, it is important to know that individual players are building a niche while also impacting communities.
Bernard Mukhone, the brains behind Balambuli Kwigate Coffee (BKC), is one such person who is providing a silver lining in the Elgon sub-region through working with coffee farmers and the local communities as the fundamental players of the trade, writes Geofrey Serugo.
For the past two weeks, one of the most gripping social media debates surrounds the coffee saga, in which Shs 37 billion meant to improve the national coffee value chain was allegedly mismanaged.
Several leading players in the industry have come out to claim Ugandans were taken for a ride, but for Mukhone, that is the least of his distractions.
“I am still new in the industry, and when I made the bold step to join the trade, I settled on building my own capacity,” he says.
The Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) recently recognised Balambuli Kwigate Coffee as one of Uganda’s model coffee projects.
Indeed, during the media tour at the high-altitude Suguta village in Buginyanya sub-county in Bulambuli district, the 43-year-old took us around the washing station and later to the coffee-drying facility in Mbale.
Over the past three years, BKC has demonstrated consistent quality processing while also sharing proceeds with the communities in which they operate.
“As BKC, we are in this business to make money, but we also want to improve the lives of smallholder farmers whom we buy coffee from. Together, we have a mission to contribute to the community’s long-term economic security by delivering the best coffee cup profiles from Uganda,” he says.
BKC, which deals in Arabica coffee, deploys basic but meticulous process flows to produce fully washed coffees called Zinule, a Gishu word for sweet; naturals, which are refer to as Naginzole, honey-processed, and anaerobic, among others.
According to Mukhone, it all starts with getting the right cherries – strictly red, which provide a good start and a high probability of eventually producing a good cup.
“We float, sort, pulp, ferment, wash and then dry our washed coffees under regulated temperatures. The same goes for naturals, although here we do not pulp. In coffee terms, these processes produce speciality coffee and employ meticulous handling to enhance the flavour and complexity of the coffee.
At Suguta, BKC directly employs about 32 workers, most of whom are involved in coffee sorting, loading, and washing, but there are also those indirectly employed, such as transporters. At Busoba in Mbale, where the final processing is done, BKC employs 45 to 60 workers, depending on the volume of work in a given season.
Impressively, all the coffee is dried on well-crafted drying beds in Busoba, where the locals continuously sort and handpick the coffee until the coffee is fully dry.
“The slow drying under controlled temperatures enhances the coffee taste. This helps create that fine aroma that you enjoy as you sip your coffee. If you expose it to a lot of heat, the bean cracks, especially the fully-washed coffees which then exposes the green bean to external matter,” he says.
“There are many Ugandans who are not drinking coffee because their only encounter with coffee is with low-quality coffee. The truth is that most of our good coffee is exported, and what we consume here is mostly lower-grade coffee. That reduces the chances of having a good cup. So, I am into this business to partly attempt to increase the chances of Ugandans having a good encounter with coffee, even when it is your first cup.”
Mukhone confidently says that in the three years they have been in business, BKC has consistently produced very good coffees and still aspires to do even better.
“Not so many people know about us and not so many people know the faces behind the coffee they enjoy, which is deliberate because we decided to focus our energies on getting the quality right,” he says.
“Our washing station is at an altitude of 1,800 metres about sea level, which gives us the opportunity to source high altitude coffee. We always encourage farmers to pick only red cherries by giving them a good price, most times higher than what the market offers per kilo of good red cherries,” he says.
Mukhone has been in corporate circles for most of his career, but in 2019, he began to actively find his way into the coffee industry.
“A friend then working within the coffee chain interested me in Robusta coffee trade, which I attempted to do although my suppliers were quite unreliable with quality as well as meeting timelines, and it was at that point that I sought to delve deeper in the chain,” he recalls.
After making several inroads, he decided to look for land within a 50-kilometre radius of Kampala in the hope of planting coffee, but that turned out to be an even riskier venture.
“On the day I was supposed to pay for the land, I discovered I was being scammed when the real owners showed up.”
The Covid-19 pandemic adversely affected many Ugandans, but, ironically, while most people were locked down, Mukhone’s passion for coffee was boiling as he seized the opportunity to delve even much deeper into the coffee industry.
“I had a lot of time on my hands, and I would work remotely from anywhere because of the lockdown; so, chose to explore my wild dreams,” he says.
It is at this point that he tried out the Arabicas in the Elgon sub-region, yet still, finding decent land in Bulambuli proved difficult because the terrain is difficult to navigate and the soils are prone to landslides. What’s more, access to water is also tricky. So, when Mukhone started with a washing station, what incentivized him most was the fact that an international exporting firm had assured him it was going to off-take his coffee.
That meant he had to expedite the setting up of the station, including figuring out how to get access to reliable clean water. The only viable option was to tap water from a source at the mountain top that is about 3km to the washing station. With this, the community along the water line would benefit and get free clean water.
In the first year of operations, Mukhone says they produced close to 40 tonnes of green bean. It was a solid start. Nonetheless, it was not the smooth ride he had dreamt of as he met several challenges like any other business, especially given the fact that he had to juggle between his day job and producing coffee.
“Luckily, my employers have been very supportive in terms of allowing me flexible working hours. The understanding is that if I don’t have to be at the office and I can do my work remotely and must deliver without any excuse,” he says.
“Coffee attracts many wrong elements and many time they are part of your team. In order not to lose sleep, we monitor all our sites remotely, thus reducing the risk and temptation of stealing,” he says. “I monitor my business remotely, so sometimes when I get a break during my work or in the middle of the night, I flip through my phone to see what’s happening at the different sites in real time.”
In their first year of operation, their coffee was submitted for the Best of the Pearl competition organised by UCDA, and they made it to the final round but had to bow out of the competition after exhausting all their samples.
“We performed beyond our expectations but could not take part in the final round because all our coffee had been bought,” he says.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
That bittersweet experience opened Mukhone’s eyes to the importance of quality coffee. In the Uganda coffee experience, there are two key products; those that deal in specialty coffee and those that deal in commercial coffee.
According to Mukhone, speciality coffee is of exceptional quality because it undergoes rigorous quality control measures throughout the production process to ensure consistency and excellence. Commercial coffee, on the other hand, is typically mass-produced, and while it may still be enjoyable to many consumers, it lacks the unique characteristics and complexity.
“It requires a lot of money to deal in commercials due to bulk production, but I chose to go with speciality largely because you don’t need a lot of volume to make good margins. What’s more, the prices are higher. However, you need a lot of patience and you must trust the process,” he says.
One of the keys to BKC’s success is the engagement with the farmers, especially through community initiatives. So, BKC advances financial assistance to farmers who supply them with coffee.
“We do this under simple conditions, but that also comes as a challenge because sometimes some of them become dodgy due to other demands. But again, it’s a relationship. They always bring the cherries eventually,” he says.
Mukhone says their current infrastructure can produce anywhere between 15 and 30 containers of speciality coffee annually, and he plans to set up a coffee house in Kampala soon.
“I want to be sure that every time somebody comes to drink coffee or to buy a pack of coffee, they will enjoy it to the fullest. This will increase the number of people who drink coffee. I know that is a long journey, but we must start somewhere,” he says.
“As industry players, we must be interested in increasing the amount of coffee that our people consume locally. While it is important to increase our coffee exports, it’s equally important to increase local consumption of our coffees because that has many benefits at different levels.”