Challenging established practices in the coffee industry

Coffee is one of the world’s most traded commodities, but many smallholder farmers struggle to access profitable markets. In Uganda, Mountain Harvest is working together with farmers to change this.

Written by: Annika Surmeier and Samantha Henderson
GRP Areas of work: Innovation Theme: Agriculture, nutrition and food security Jobs and livelihoods

Coffee is one of the world’s most traded commodities. Millions of people around the world work in the coffee industry to grow, process and trade coffee. This is also the case for Uganda – Africa’s second-largest coffee exporter after Ethiopia and one of the top coffee-producing countries on the planet. However, many Ugandan smallholder farmers still struggle to get fair prices for their coffee and improve their livelihoods. Kenneth Barigye and his team from Mountain Harvest aim to change this and facilitate fair, inclusive and sustainable practices in the coffee industry.

Speciality coffee beans produced on Mount Elgon, Uganda

Samantha Henderson

Access to value chains is often challenging for smallholder farmers

The inclusion of smallholder farmers into global value chains (GVC) has been proposed as an opportunity to address challenges such as rural poverty and gender inequality. This is particularly relevant for sub-Saharan Africa where over 60% of the population earns their main income from agriculture, and about 23% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture (McKinsey, 2019). However, many smallholder farmers in African countries struggle to access global markets and sell their crops into global value chains. Even if they are meeting the requirements of international buyers, these farmers usually receive low prices for their goods. 

Mountain Harvest assists farmers to get market access at favourable prices

Mountain Harvest is an intermediary organisation working with 850 farmers in eight communities of Mount Elgon, Uganda. The organisation assists coffee farmers in upgrading the quality of their products and getting a better deal on the global coffee market through organic certification.

Competing with everyone is risky. You have to get to a point where you are producing coffee that only you or very few of you are producing. That way you disconnect from the commodity pricing, you can demand your prices and you can get better prices for the farmers. Kenneth Barigye

While many non-profit organisations work with smallholder farmers, Mountain Harvest is convinced that their commercial business model—that centers around premium, organic and ethically traded coffee—equips them to promote lasting and sustainable change within Ugandan farming communities and the coffee industry as a whole.  

Local farmers working with Mountain Harvest attest to the value that this collaboration has brought: A leader of the Sipi farming community underlines: 

Mountain Harvest has been meeting the needs of the farmers, we have been working together very closely and because of this my village has improved.

Similarly, many other farmers explain that access to fair prices for high-quality coffee is having positive impacts on their farming communities. By receiving higher prices and immediate payment for their coffee from Mountain Harvest, farmers take home hard currency. This supports reinvestment into their farms for sustainable livelihoods, contributes to improved food security and health of their households, and facilitates access to education for farmers’ children whose school fees can now be paid. However, the farmers also underline that they are facing challenges related to the seasonality of coffee and the ever-growing threat of a rapidly changing climate frequently resulting in droughts or heavy rains with deadly mudslides. These extreme weather events are destroying coffee trees and jeopardizing farmers’ livelihoods.

Watira Bakali inspecting his coffee plantation in Makaali. Farmers in the Makali community work closely with Mountain Harvest to upgrade their product and secure higher prices for their coffee

Jjumba Martin / Mountain Harvest

Income diversification and regenerative agriculture as response to climate change

In response to the harsh reality of climate change, Mountain Harvest promotes regenerative agriculture by building an ecosystem of support and facilitating income diversification within the farming communities. This is done by introducing and facilitating access to markets for additional crops, such as macadamia and avocados. Growing these crops creates new income opportunities between coffee seasons and simultaneously provides excellent shade and rain protection for the farmers’ coffee trees. Furthermore, rabbit rearing helps to produce organic manure while planting legumes contributes not only to food security but also enriches the soil with nitrogen. 

Recognising the efforts of ‘invisible workers’

Collaborating closely with smallholder farmers has enabled Mountain Harvest to identify opportunities to promote positive social impact in farming communities. Now, the organisation is trying to build on these experiences and promote better coffee practices not only in the farming communities but along the entire value chain.

They underline that one group of ‘invisible workers‘ are the hand sorters – women who quality check every single coffee bean by hand before they are packed. The work of these women often goes unnoticed within the coffee value chain and as casual workers, they have to navigate low payments and no job security while ensuring that their children are supported. Despite their hard and important work, these women often live in severe poverty, on less than $1 a day. Thus, a growing focus for Mountain Harvest is to offer their hand sorters more than six months of work and a meal every day. Nancy Akello and Agnes Kemigisha who are leading the projects and micro-loans team are investigating how Mountain Harvest can apply their experiences and expertise from the farm level to also provide opportunities for hand sorters to invest and save for their households’ future and start entrepreneurial activities outside the coffee season. 

Savanna Mariam sorts coffee by hand at Mountain Harvest Coffee in Mbale, Uganda. Each sack of beans is quality checked before being milled, roasted and exported.

Jjumba Martin / Mountain Harvest

The way forward

Iintermediary organisations like Mountain Harvest provide important social impact work. By collaborating closely with local communities and by influencing additional stakeholders along the value chain, they aim to disrupt established sourcing practices and promote just, inclusive and sustainable value chains. It is important that global buyers, policy-makers and international development organisations recognize the efforts and capabilities of intermediary organisations, such as Mountain Harvest. By collaborating with them and adjusting their buying practices and prices, they can promote fair profit sharing and contribute to socially innovative and sustainable practices within and along value chains.

Bukalasi is one of many farming communities on Mount Elgon seeking to become part of more just, inclusive and sustainable value chains

Samantha Henderson

The Global Resilience Partnership will be working together with Mountain Harvest over the next three years to provide smallholder farmers access to fairly-priced loans, as well as change perceptions around the risk they represent, with an aim to foster resilience and stability. Read more about this work here.