By Rachel Beebe
One warm, quiet afternoon in the summer of 2019 James Wilkinson walked into Steampunk with a backpack full of coffee samples and introduced himself. James was starting a fledgling green coffee importing company, Omwani Coffee, and he wanted us to try his wares. At the time Steampunk was purchasing the bulk of our coffee from one importer, Falcon Coffee, from whom we still buy. But James’ story, and his coffee, were compelling enough to launch a relationship that would shift the way we buy coffee and offer us a glimpse into the development of Uganda as a specialty coffee producing country.
We’re reflecting on all this now because we’ve bought a large (for us) lot of the most recent harvest of Bukonzo Dream, a coffee from the same producers as the one we initially bought from James four years ago. It’ll be our cafe’s main single origin espresso through the busy holiday season, and the truth is it’s a bold choice. More on that later though. For now, the key point is that we couldn’t believe the improvement in the quality of the flavour in just a few years. Of course, the coffee from four years ago was delicious. It definitely turned our heads. But this year’s coffee is so much better. I wanted to find out why, so I asked James.
The long and short of it is that last year Agri Evolve, the company that processes and exports the coffee, built a big new washing station and dry mill in Nyabirongo, in the southern foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains (pictured below and in main image). The facility is equipped with modern machinery to sort and grade the coffee including a gravity table and colour sorter to pick out unripe and low density beans and mechanical dryers to use at the height of the harvest when there’s too much cherry coming in to dry on the drying tables. Importantly, the coffee can be processed all the way from cherry to exportable green coffee in one location, which is uncommon in Uganda.
Some background will help put the new facility into context. Back in 2017 there was hardly any Ugandan specialty coffee on the market at all despite the country exporting more sacks of Arabica than neighbouring Kenya. In fact, at that time, Kenya and Rwanda both earned more per kilo for the coffee they exported, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which published a Policy Note on the topic in 2019. Producers in Kenya and Rwanda could earn more per kilo because their coffee was higher quality and they had access to the specialty market. Ugandan farmers were earning a lot less because the coffee they were selling wasn’t specialty grade.
The reason for this difference comes down to tradition and infrastructure.
There are two major Arabica coffee growing areas in Uganda: Mount Elgon and the Rwenzori Mountains. Agri Evolve and Omwani operate in the Rwenzori Mountains where coffee is grown by smallholder farmers who produce very small quantities of cherry. Traditionally, farmers dried their coffee themselves on tarpaulins before selling it to a trader who would then sell it to a dry mill where it was processed and sold for export. The trouble was, because the prices offered by the traders/middlemen were so low, farmers weren’t waiting for their coffee to ripen completely before picking it, and when they dried it they didn’t turn the beans enough to prevent mould and fustiness developing.
Drying coffee naturally is actually pretty hard to do well so it generally yields much lower quality coffee beans. With all the high quality natural process coffee flying around the market nowadays it’s easy to forget that natural process coffee historically wasn’t as good as washed coffee and it sold for much less money.
Also, there was no standard of quality at the milling stage either. Farmers sold their dried cherry, locally known as kiboko, for very low prices to traders who could buy any quality and sell it on to big mills in the capital city, Kampala. So, hundreds of lots of very low quality coffee were all combined together without any sorting and grading. This commodity-grade dry processed Ugandan Arabica was known by the trading term “DRUGARS” (and, fittingly, washed process Ugandan Arabica is WUGARS).
James started his career in Ugandan coffee as a trader of DRUGARS. He went around to farms buying up coffee and selling it on to a dry mill. But he quickly realised the correlation between price and quality and he knew that the best way to increase quality was to set up a washing station and buy cherries directly from producers. Buying cherry instead of dried coffee would allow him to only buy ripe cherries and to manage the grading, traceability and processing himself. In our conversation he mentioned how important even basic things are, like how often the machinery is cleaned and maintained. All of this impacts the quality in the final cup. And traceability (knowing who grew the coffee and where they grew it) immediately adds value to coffee on the specialty market.
Along with his longtime friend Jonny Rowland, James co-founded Agri Evolve in 2014. A few years later they built the first washing station. According to the same report mentioned above, in 2017 Uganda had just 22 washing stations, compared to 261 in neighbouring (and geographically much smaller) Rwanda. So Agri Evolve was doing something unconventional in Ugandan coffee.
But the two weren't the only ones to see potential in the Ugandan coffee market. In 2020 Nespresso launched their Amaha awe Uganda brand as a part of their Reviving Origins project. They invested in Agri Evolve’s original mill in Kasinga and issued a press release at the time saying their, “investment, training and resources provides Rwenzori coffee farmers with the tools to improve their livelihoods through the increase of the quality of their crop.”
Selling fresh cherries instead of DRUGARS was a big shift for producers, though. Agri Evolve was asking a lot. They wanted them to selectively pick only fresh cherries instead of strip picking. And the value proposition was a little wacky at first glance as it involved asking producers to do something different to how they been doing it for generations. Imagine you could sell your DRUGARS for 2 USD per kilo but these guys are asking you to sell them fresh cherry for 0.4 USD per kilo. It feels like they’re offering to pay less for the same thing. But it takes six to seven kilograms of cherry to make one kilo of green coffee, so actually they’re offering more per kilo. Because smallholder farmers don’t have the potential to significantly increase their yield, the only way for them to make more money is to increase the value of the coffee, which they can do through careful picking. Agri Evolve only bought ripe cherry, but paid more than anyone else for it. Word travelled fast.
So now it’ll make sense when I say that our reaction upon tasting the first lot of Bukonzo Dream we bought was, “Wow this is good for Ugandan coffee!” We bought it because it was good, but also because it was interesting to have coffee from a newly emerging specialty origin. It turned out to be a giant hit with customers. We originally bought eight sacks, but ended up buying four more on top of that because it was selling so well.
Also, we were excited to work with a small new importer and it turned out that taking a bit of a risk buying coffee from Omwani led us to consider working with other newly established, more specialised importers like Indochina (who brought us China Banka and Myanmar Padah Lin), Ensembles (Mexico Trincheras) and Cata (Colombia Paola Trujillo). We found these importers through their connection with James, who launched a platform, Green Coffee Collective, to host country or region specific specialty importers. We still buy from larger, more established importers who bring top quality coffee in from all over the coffee growing map, but having more cups from smaller producers on the buying table widens our frame of reference, pushes our quality standard up and allows us to make more informed buying decisions.
Building relationships with smaller importers also gives us another perspective on the coffee market in terms of what direct trade means at different scales. For example, it’s hard to have a direct connection to the place and people who grow coffee when they’re smallholders. It’s easier when farms are larger and owned by one entity or when smallholders are organised into cooperatives. But our relationship with Omwani has meant that our Head of Coffee, Ludwika, has travelled to work alongside their partners in Burundi and Rwanda. Now she knows many of the producers and people who work at the mills by name, and they know her.
When we tasted this year’s Bukonzo Dream we knew it wasn’t just good for Ugandan coffee. It’s amazing coffee, full stop. It’s got the trademark fruit forward profile of a natural coffee, but it’s super clean and vibrant. The flavour notes are more distinct than in previous years. It's like the acidity that was always there has been tidied up and braided together into a more resonant, balanced cup.
You can try this brilliant coffee yourself by hitting the link below.
When we spoke James told me that it was always his wish to “get Rwenzori coffee on the specialty map.” He also told me that his most recent container from Uganda sold out within a week, before it even landed in the UK. I’d say job done.
All images courtesy of Agri Evolve.