Time for a coffee?

Last Sunday we had an outing. A real treat.

Amongst the fellow comers-and-goers at the hospital’s guest house is Kingsley, an American-Canadian who, for the last four years, has been farming Coffee on the hills near Buhoma. He came upon the place by happen-stance, travelling to Uganda to see the Gorillas, then getting increasingly involved and increasingly invested in the local community. This took the form of engaging with local schools and finding out about the opportunities for enterprise using the best local cash crop, namely coffee.

Kingsley invited us to his coffee farm. We had an amazing day, exploring the production of coffee from coffee-cherry to cafetiere in one of the most stunning settings I have ever seen, with views over the rumples of the hills to the little valley where Buhoma lies to the hills of Congo just next beyond.

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Coffee only grows at altitude (Arabica coffee at higher altitude), and our area here is perfect. It is high, well watered and the soil is fertile and the air is clear. Kingsley and his wife Maha bought the land, but the trees were free under a Ugandan Government programme promoting regulated expansion of coffee growing throughout the country. Coffee trees need to be mulched with grasses and with goat manure and urine to promote healthy growth and to avoid diseases. They are productive for 7 or 8 years. There are two crops in a year from august to November, and then February to May. The farm has an office and a store room, but no electricity except that generated by solar, and only the most basic structures needed to run a farm and a business. Kinglsey grows coffee himself and then collaborates with local coffee growers to improve the quality of their farming techniques and their crops, and to buy their coffee for a good price if the quality is right.

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Coffee berries called ‘’coffee cherries’’ are picked by hand when they are red and plump. Their first process is to be soaked in water. The good quality ones sink, the lesser quality ones float and are scooped away, then the water is agitated and the process repeated. Then the cherries are squeezed by hand to release the beans which taste fruity and have a sticky juice around them when they are raw. The beans are then graded by a fabulous red sifting machine, passing through several meshes and sieving processes to separate out the best beans. From there the beans are washed in troughs over night, to ‘ferment’ and to remove the stickiness. Then they are dried on large wire racks in the open under tarpaulin for several days whilst the humidity is checked until it is perfect. The husks are removed and winnowed away leaving the green inner bean. These are ready for shipping as a high end product whilst the lower quality beans go through the same process but are sold on to dealers for lower quality products like instant coffee (!) For every 100 kg of beans, the yield is about 16 kg of top quality coffee beans.

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We explored the slopes amongst the coffee bushes, picked ripe beans, washed them, popped them open, husked them, winnowed them. The process was very appealingly tactile. I was surprised by the number of steps in the production, and how each one of them is done by hand. Every single cherry, every single bean is passed through hands again and again and again on it’s journey to a percolator. Then…..hmmm…. , the final step. Kingsley lit a small charcoal brazier in the open air and we roasted the beans. Up wafted the smell of my childhood – the rich, warm, comforting smell of roasted coffee beans. Then we stepped into the office, stacked with this season’s crop, just ready for dispatch, switched on the solar powered generator and ground the coffee in a little electric grinder. At last. Richly aromatic coffee in a deep mug, sipped in the softening afternoon sun looking out towards the horizon and the rift valley in the distance. A deep pleasure that I will take a long time to forget!

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Running a coffee business here has challenges, not least the remoteness of the setting. Vehicles are essential to the operation, but if they develop a fault, a good mechanic is 10 hours drive away in Kampala. The farm is the highest point in a high area – a target for lightening strikes in our area that has the highest lightening strike rate in the world. It hails sometimes and the coffee cherries stop growing, it is difficult to recruit the right staff in such a remote area where everyone has to be within an hour’s walk of the farm. There are scrupulous and unscrupulous intermediaries in the exporting chain. But it is a challenge, but the potential rewards are abundant at many levels, and the challenge of making the project work is obviously exciting. For those in the UK who want to try Kingsley’s coffee (Kingha Coffee) you will have to drop by for a cup at our house once we are back home!

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