Uganda in east Africa has ambitious plans to triple its coffee exports by 2030 but these hopes come with warnings the country must adopt stringent food safety standards if it wants to access Western markets. 

Uganda exported 6.26 million 60kg bags of coffee valued at UGX3.19trn ($862m) between August 2021 and July 2022, compared with six million bags valued at $559m for the same period the previous 12 months, according to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), a government agency that regulates the country’s coffee production. The 2021–22 figure was the highest Uganda has ever earned from coffee in a single year but the government would still like to raise coffee sales by $300m a year, or $1.5bn within the next five years. 

In fact, it plans to increase production to 20 million bags by 2030 and earn up to $2.2bn a year in coffee exports by that year. Up to 1.5 million Ugandan households could benefit from improved incomes if it happens, according to the country’s authorities. Currently, 17–19% of Uganda’s foreign exchange comes from coffee exports.

“We arrived at our new targets by sitting down with the coffee people for two days,” says Odrek Rwabwogo, chairperson of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Exports and Industrial Development. “You must have a working target of how much you need to sell per year because, without it, we are saying ‘produce, produce’ but produce and sell what? When? How much? 

“In terms of premium coffee sales, there is more that we can do. I know we can raise coffee sales above $1.5bn within five years.” 

The government would like to achieve its new targets by enhancing its trading relationships with specific countries, including China. It wants to develop the Ugandan coffee brand so the value of the coffee increases by up to 15%. It also wants to strengthen farmer organisations and producer cooperatives to improve commercialisation for smallholder farmers and make it easier to get financing for inputs. 

The US is a popular destination for Uganda’s Arabica coffee while Europe is the biggest importer of its Robusta variety. Its coffee also sells well in Japan and the Middle East and there is a growing demand from other African countries.

Can Uganda comply with Western countries’ phytosanitary conditions?

One of the biggest obstacles to accessing new coffee markets around the world is the need to comply with technical barriers to trade and phytosanitary conditions set by trade partners. These standards ensure that a plant is ‘clean’ and free from pests and diseases. One of the Ugandan government’s key priorities is to improve food traceability, food safety and introduce new sanitary and phytosanitary measures in the country. 

“We focus on organic and women-led farming, although we have many men involved as well,” says Cody Lorance, co-chief executive officer of Endiro Coffee, a Ugandan specialty coffee producer exporting to the US market. “The key emphasis now – for our company and also for specialty Arabica coffee in the country – is sustainability for farmers and the land, and differentiation, making Ugandan coffee irreplaceable in the market. A third component is value creation. We are trying to encourage everyone in our value chain to get more creative in how value is generated and wealth is built from farming.

“There are several African countries that are always in the top ten globally of coffee exporters – Kenya and Ethiopia are the two big ones. Rwanda and Tanzania have both distinguished themselves as well.”

A debate is happening in Uganda about whether the country should emulate Vietnam – the world’s second-biggest coffee producer after Brazil – or Ethiopia. Vietnam produces low-grade Robusta, which can be sold in high volumes. However, Ethiopia has a reputation for producing some of the world’s highest-quality coffee. In November 2022, export revenue for Vietnamese coffee amounted to around $99 per 60kg bag, while for Ethiopian coffee it was about $199. Uganda must decide whether the Vietnamese or the Ethiopian model offers farmers better value. 

Furthermore, in its drive to improve its coffee production, experts also say it is important Uganda – which has a $48bn economy and 43.7 million inhabitants –preserves its rain forests.

“I am saddened that coffee mechanisation is driving so much forest destruction in Brazil,” says Lorance. “I hope Uganda will rise to the challenge and pursue strategies of regenerative agriculture which preserve, grow and utilise forests responsibly. There is no reason why Uganda can’t be a world leader on this.”

Robusta coffee originated in Uganda

The UCDA has built a robust laboratory to ensure Uganda continues to export high-quality coffee to buyers globally. Robusta coffee originated in the country and Ugandan protocols for evaluating the coffee type were developed in this laboratory. The agency has 25 inspectors who do physical grading, roasting and sensory analysis of coffee samples before shipment to the final destination.

In 2018, Ugandans consumed only 3-4% of the coffee produced in the country. Masira and Buyaga in the Bulambuli district are important for producing Arabica coffee, while Sekanyonyi in the Mityana district is significant for producing Robusta.

The UCDA has a programme to promote coffee growing in northern Uganda. It wants to encourage coffee production in non-traditional coffee-growing regions – including the Lango sub-region in the country’s north – to help farmers switch from subsistence to commercial agriculture. 

Emmanuel Iyamulemye, the UCDA’s managing director, says dry weather during 2022 had impacted the sector’s production and productivity negatively. “The erratic weather patterns call for increased investment in climate change mitigation and adaptation measures,” he adds. “I encourage farmers to practice good agricultural practices, plant shade trees and mulch coffee gardens to offset the impact of climate change.”

He urged farmers to undertake stumping, the practice of rejuvenating older coffee trees by cutting all their main stems to encourage vigorous new growth. It increases the amount of coffee produced by a tree by up to three times.

“This season, our coffee scored 85.25, which is the highest-grade coffee,” says Nangoli Martin, executive director of Kikobero Coffee, a Ugandan specialty coffee producer. “Our farm is located at 2,300m above sea level and we produce the best coffee. We do coffee from the garden to the cup. We have trained and documented 420 farmers – on 20 September 2022, 97 of them were certified organic by Ecocert, an organic certification organisation.

“The quality checks include, first, the selection of the perfect cherry and, second, the post-harvest handling. We entirely follow all the right processes. Third, we have four agronomists – the field workers – who follow all our systems.”

In May 2022, coffee-producing countries in Africa that belong to the Inter-African Coffee Organisation signed the Nairobi Declaration to include coffee as a strategic commodity under the African Union’s Agenda 63, a strategic framework for the region with the goal of inclusive and sustainable development.

The Nairobi Declaration should help coffee-producing countries such as Uganda to address a number of challenges the sector faces, including market access, new technology, value addition and research. The second G25 African Coffee Summit will be held in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, in 2023. 

The demand for high-quality specialty coffee is shooting up worldwide and Uganda has a big opportunity to export this type of coffee if it can make sure it has the right sanitary and phytosanitary standards in place.