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Uganda struggles to boost coffee production as youth desert farms

The pressure is on in Uganda to get more youth and women involved in the coffee value chain, starting with farming by using smarter agronomy practices, as the country looks to increase production to an ambitious 20 million bags by 2025.

Government hopes increased volumes will help address the double problem of much needed forex and job creation. Kampala is pumping billions of cash in this effort through initiatives like Operation Wealth Creation through the supply of seedlings to farmers.

Challenges

But in the race to get there, Uganda’s path is littered with hurdles, the first of which is that of an ageing workforce on the farms.

The average age of a coffee farmer is 60 years, according to the 2015 Sustainability of the Coffee Sector in Africa report by the International Coffee Organisation. This is in spite of over 80 per cent of Uganda’s population still being under the age of 30 years while the country’s median age is in the teen years.

“Youth exodus to urban areas has created a shortage of labour because the old people do not have the energy to farm,” said the executive director of Uganda Coffee Farmers Alliance Tony Mugoya.

For now, most young people who are engaged in the coffee sector prefer the tail end of the value chain, doing jobs like marketing, branding and brewing of the beverage, rather than work that requires them to get their hands dirty to produce the coffee in the first place.

“You cannot isolate parts of the value chain and expect to increase productivity and market. Farmers, scientists and marketing must work together,” said the executive director of the National Union of Coffee Agribusiness and Farm Enterprises (Nucafe), Joseph Nkandu.

In addition, Uganda also faces increasing shortage of land — a challenge that requires smarter methods of farming in order to produce higher yields from the same land size.

Quadrupling output

In 2017, Uganda produced 5.2 million 60kg-bags and exported 4.6 million 60kg-bags, which earned Africa’s leading exporter and second largest producer a record $544 million.

Uganda is now working with local and international experts in the sector to beat these odds.

The country hopes to quadruple output in the next seven years, a feat that would see it earn upwards of $2 billion annually from coffee exports alone.

During the Youth and Women in Coffee annual power talk convened in Kampala recently, local and international experts said the solutions to increasing productivity and earnings are already here.

The power talk, organised by the African Fine Coffee Association and the farmer field school UTZ, brought together over 300 young people engaged in the sector as entrepreneurs, roasters, baristas and a few farmers.

Brazilian national Eduardo Sampaio, the field representative of UTZ, said once the youth are involved in the sector and trained in new models of farming, this would raise productivity even without increasing the coffee acreage.

According to Mr Sampaio, this was the case in Brazil where production increased by 50 per cent over the past 10 years without expansion of the acreage.

Mr Nkandu agrees with this, arguing that the sector in Uganda needs intensification. This involves using less land to plant more coffee trees in a smart modern way that is guided by science and research.

Land usage

“If we are to produce 20 million bags, how much land do we need? Experts have said we would need two million hectares,” he said. “If we apply science, reduce spacing and boost productivity, we can still use the little land we have to increase production.”

Uganda Coffee Development Authority reports note that only four per cent of farmers in the country have more than five hectares of agriculture land.

The land size for each of the 1.7 million households — mostly smallholder farmers that dominate coffee farming — ranges from 0.5 to 2.5 hectares.

Around 2010, the total acreage under coffee in Uganda was 182,875 hectares, compared with Vietnam whose total acreage stood at over 540,000 hectares.

But Mr Nkandu said if young people came on board, even the small acreage could be optimally utilised by applying best agronomy practices using fertiliser, reducing coffee tree spacing, intercropping and renovating the current plantations.

This, he said, would lead to a further yield of about two million bags of coffee annually.

“We have not done enough to involve the youth; we need to fully empower them. As they come in, they should learn how the entire coffee value chain works since they need relevant skills to take coffee production to another level,” he said.

Most farmers in Uganda are currently spacing their coffee at 10 by 10 feet, which translates into less yield per acre of about 4,500kgs of coffee per annum, compared with Brazil, the world’s largest producer and exporter, whose policy recommends 1,200 coffee trees per acre, giving a yield of 7,200kgs.

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