by Alexis and Neil.
Hello from Uganda! The whole Crop to Cup crew is now in tow in Mbale, with Alexis and Neil now officially known as Muzungus. We are following the energetic lead of Taylor and Jake, who are practically locals here and are ear-to-ear smiles being back on UG soil. Over the past few days, we’ve had fruitful meetings in Kampala with EAFCA (East African Fine Coffee Association) and LEAD (Livelihoods and Enterprises for Agricultural Development Program). Kampala is a bustling capital, but we jumped right into it, hopping on the back of boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) to get around town.
Now on day 3, we find ourselves busy as ever in Mbale at the base of Mt. Elgon. On our first full day here in Mbale we had very productive meetings with the regional LEAD representative, as well as our old friend Geoffrey. Later in the day we met with Bernard Sabakaki, the general manager of the epic Bugisu Cooperative Union (BCU) and Bernard extended an invitation for a personal tour of the Union’s large facilities.
Before we take you on our own little tour of BCU, let’s talk about what’s happens to coffee on the farm (on the mountain) before it reaches the Union facility (down the mountain) for final processing. Hopefully this will provide adequate background for those of you who are not familiar with the coffee process.
We got a firsthand look at the farm level today from spending the day with farmers near Buginyanya. After a bumpy but beautiful ride up through the coffee farms, or shambas (family gardens), we met with our friend Bernard (yes, another Bernard) who showed us how his garden works, from seedling to drying, the last step before it reaches the BCU facility for processing.
Bernard’s family farm has about 10,000 trees, each producing roughly one pound of roasted coffee per year. We picked some ripe and red coffee “cherries” off the trees, and Bernard and his brother gave us some key points about picking coffee that not every coffee farmer follows: only pick red, ripe cherries; no strip picking (pulling all cherries off the branch at once, regardless of whether they are ripe or not); delicately picking cherries to leave the cherry stem on the branch to ensure high quality and yields for the next crop.
The cherries on Bernard’s farm are then pulped in a hand pulper that separates the green coffee encased in slimy mucilage from the cherry “skin.” The slimy beans then goes through a fermentation process and depending on the altitude and amount of sun and clouds per day, the time can vary between 12 to 48 hours. Farms in Buginyanya village are at around 6,000 feet, therefore the fermentation process takes longer. After this labor-intensive process, the coffee is then laid out to dry, until the moisture content is low enough to safely travel to BCU for further drying. The moisture content must be below 18% to ensure that molding or fungus cannot begin to grow, which would destroy the coffee. After walking through this delicate process with Bernard and his family we follow the coffee, farm to truck, down the mountain to the BCU facility in Mbale.
To our amazement BCU is a massive facility spanning about 4 football fields. Our jaws were on the ground at the size and scope of the facility built over 50 years ago when the Cooperative was King.
We walked in where the final processing begins. Coffee is weighed and loaded into silos where the first round of debris removal occurs. In the BCU facility there are 32 silos each able to hold 16 tons of parchment coffee. The coffee goes through a series of debris removal and de-stoning before it is hulled of its dry “paper-like” outer casing (parchment) and separated by grade (size, color quality). After this has been done the coffee is bagged and any defects are picked out by hand. We met some beautiful men and women who are dedicated to producing sweet and clean Bugisu coffee. They have a tedious and hard task of hand sorting coffee, all the while sporting big smiles and welcoming greetings.
And here my loyal friends you have the beautiful and arduous process that gives us the finished Bugisu Mt. Elgon coffee ready to make the trek to your local roaster and awaiting cup.
Keep following us on this blog as there are many more farms to visit, people to meet and pictures to show!