Mt. Elgon, Uganda
Mount Elgon is a massive 4,321 meter shield volcano located in the eastern part of Uganda. The unique ecosystem differs greatly from much of the rest of the country where low-lying areas increase temperatures, and the higher elevations on these slopes has allowed smallholder farmers to successfully grow a high quality Arabica variety of coffee.
One of the most unique varieties of Arabica coffee grown in the Mount Elgon region is Nyasaland which was originally cultivated in western Ethiopia. It was introduced to Uganda by British colonialists in the early 20th century, and has adopted to the local agroforestry practices of local farmers. It is often grown together with a wide variety of other crops, including fruit trees, ginger, bananas, and manioc.
The vast majority of coffee grown in East Uganda comes from small farmers who grow on small plots of less than 2.5 hectares. Relatively large families, however, have led to increasingly smaller plots as men divide their land inheritance to children. Today, the average coffee farm size is just 0.18 hectares, reflecting a serious lack of access to farm land for Ugandan youth. Whereas many coffee farmers around the world dedicate large tracts of land to monoculture plots of coffee, farmers in East Uganda tend to grow coffee as part of a diversified agroforestry system. This allows farmers to have more resilient farms and steady sources of incomes while also protecting them from fluctuations in the price of coffee.
Coffee farmers in East Uganda tend to only achieve yields of 550 to 600 kilograms a hectare. In Vietnam, for comparison, farmers can routinely get up to 2,400 kilograms per hectare. The relatively low production per hectare is one of the main challenges facing Uganda´s coffee farmers. Several programs both by government, private, and non-profit sectors are helping to improve yields in order to boost profit margins for farmers in the region.
The combination of ideal climate, high quality soils, and traditional agroforestry methods practiced by local farmers have allowed small farmers to grow a number of unique Arabica varieties that have found a place in the specialty market of Europe. This type of coffee is most often shade grown in agroforestry systems where other perennial tree crops are also grown. The constant leaf fall on these small coffee plantations offers abundant organic matter that is a natural fertilizer for the soil, retains humidity for coffee production, and reduces farmer dependence on outside agrochemical inputs.
In most parts of the Mount Elgon region of Uganda, Arabica coffee is planted between the months of March and April and is harvested between August and November, depending on the specific elevation. The coffee trees flower during the dry season and offer a fragrant Jasmine aroma to the hillsides.
Specialty Arabica varieties of coffee grown in Eastern Uganda are known for their fruity, wine-like flavors. However, it is also common to find coffees with complex sweet and citrus-like flavor profiles that are punctuated with notes of raisins and figs. The well-established export market for specialty Arabica coffees has led to plentiful washing and processing infrastructure to make sure that the beans are well-cared for from harvest to export.