Uganda is the largest exporter of coffee and second leading producer in Africa, earning the country millions in foreign exchange per annum. This vibrant coffee industry is built on the shoulders of millions of small holder farmers who produce most of the country’s coffee.
Located about 150 Kilometers from Uganda’s capital, Kampala- Kibinge Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Society is home to 1,924 such small holder farmers. Through the year, these farmers engage in various farm activities and during every harvest season deliver excellent Robusta coffee thanks to the region’s fertile soils shaded by trees at an altitude of 1200-1600 m above sea level.The co-operative describes its cup taste as caramelized, vanilla-chocolate, bittersweet, moderate acidity, smooth- round body, sweet aroma and a pleasant after taste. Fairtrade Certified since 2012, this cup quality has seen Kibinge increase and maintain a steady export volume (from 270 MT in 2012 to 945.7 MT in the 2018/2019 financial year) to Fairtrade buyers, mostly in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Journey to value addition
Most of Uganda’s coffee like other African countries, is exported in form of green beans and value addition done in consuming countries. At the co-operative society’s inception in 2009, this formed part of Kibinge’s motive – to engage in the complete coffee value chain- as part of its wider goal which is to generate income to sustain member farmers and the organization. In 2017, this was brought back to life during a routine brainstorm session at the co-operative where the idea to process coffee into powder to enable staff and farmer members enjoy the quality coffee grown in their own backyards sprung up. A decision was made to train youths on quality management including good agricultural practices, grading, sorting, roasting, grinding and cupping.
It has been an upward trajectory for the co-operative since then. Using Fairtrade Premium funds and additional resources from other development partners, a small coffee laboratory was equipped with the necessary tools and staff. Co-operative members began to enjoy their own coffee. Later, the ground coffee was sold to members, surrounding community and visitors who came to the society until demand progressively picked. This entire time, Kibinge sought feedback on its product leading them to upgrade to better packaging that kept the coffee fresh for a longer period and at the same time helped retain the taste and quality. In 2018, Kibinge successfully obtained national certification from the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, earning it recognition as a product that met market standards. Later, they obtained a barcode, enabling them to place Kibinge Coffee on supermarket shelves around the country.
According to Doreen Mirembe, Kibinge’s Marketing Officer, 120 supermarkets in Uganda stock Kibinge Coffee. “The supermarkets are spread across main districts like Jinja, Masaka, Kampala and Mbarara. We are yet to get to other regions in the country,” she says. Senana Hypermarket, Tuskys supermarkets, Smart Shoppers - Masaka, Outlet and Urban Square Supermarkets are some of the major outlets stocking the home-grown brand.
Technology to scale
As part of its marketing strategy, Kibinge maintains vibrant digital media platforms which it leverages to further popularize the local coffee brand. Through Facebook and a dedicated WhatsApp line for instance, interested buyers can make their orders and have deliveries made to their preferred locations. A local brand, Kibinge Coffee undoubtedly faces stiff competition from more established international brands. However, Kibinge Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Society has remained undaunted in its mission to see more Ugandans drink their own coffee. In November 2019, the co-operative began selling their branded coffee on Jumia - a top online marketplace operating in Africa.
Joining the online platform was part of Kibinge’s marketing strategy, “being on Jumia has increased our visibility. Initially, consumers would only order small quantities (50 g). Now, we receive bigger orders because buyers have sampled the product and given it five-star ratings,” says Doreen.
“Most buyers on the online platform are based in Kampala where its operations in the country are centered. This has proved to be convenient especially during the COVID pandemic because customers can purchase household items alongside their coffee and have it delivered to their doorstep,” she adds. Despite its achievements, Kibinge journey is faced with several hurdles especially now as Uganda alongside the world faces the economic disruption as a result of COVID-19. “At one point, some supermarkets stopped stocking our coffee because they preferred to have essential food items consumed by ordinary Ugandans on their inventory; for them, coffee is luxury. The nationwide lockdown also meant that coffee sat on supermarket shelves for too long yet this remains our major distribution channel. In addition, not all our customers use the online marketplace, hence only the few that do are able to access the coffee during the lockdown,” explains Doreen.
Inspiration to coffee producers
Nonetheless, Kibinge which also sells roasted coffee beans to restaurants in Kampala is determined to grow its coffee brand further. “Next, we want to explore external markets and as such export the value-added coffee in big volumes while increasing local sales through online platforms, franchise and other possible means,” said Mr. David Lukwata, the co-operative’s General Manager. “The other step is to obtain the Fairtrade mark and beef up efforts on digital platforms because online shopping is becoming a new normal,” he adds.
On the benefits drawn from value addition, Mr. Lukwata says that Kibinge Co-operative has introduced an additional income stream through which farmers have the assurance that their coffee will in future fetch better prices if more and more of it is sold as a finished product. He advises other co-operatives looking to venture into value addition to be mindful of their cup quality and handling, “also brand your coffee, because this too speaks volumes,” he concludes.
Kibinge is one of the Fairtrade coffee producing organizations seeking to generate more value from its coffee. Others include Machakos Co-operative Union in Kenya and Uganda’s Banyankole Katweerana, Ankole Coffee and Kibinge who jointly launched Butonde Coffee (100% Robusta) in 2019. In Ethiopia, the establishment of a coffee processing facility is underway at Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union which also looks to venture into value addition.