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Crimson Cup helps Ugandan farmers contend with volatile coffee market

Crimson Cup Dhaka

COLUMBUS, Ohio, U.S. — Grace, who owns a small coffee farm in Northwestern Uganda, has a five-year plan to help her family contend with the volatile global coffee market. Her goals: grow more vegetables, raise more chickens and somehow clear enough to send her children to school each day.

“When Americans plunk down $4 for a latte or cold brew, few realize that the farmer who grew the coffee in their cup made only a few pennies – or less,” said Greg Ubert, founder and president of award-winning American coffee roaster Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea. “Farmers must fight commodity market pricing, disease, climate change and other obstacles to eke out a living.”

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Many of the world’s small coffee farmers struggle to clear even $1 per pound after they plant, fertilize, harvest and process green coffee that, when roasted, may sell for $20 per pound or more. The past couple of years have been even more challenging, as the commodity price for coffee dipped below $1 per pound. Many farmers were forced to sell their coffee at a loss or to leave the industry altogether.

Crimson Cup is working to change this equation through its Friend2Farmer direct trade program. “We started the program in 2012 because we saw that many farmers and coffee-growing communities were still mired in poverty despite decades of certification programs like Fair Trade,” Ubert said. “Friend2Farmer helps to change that by ensuring farmers receive a fair share of proceeds from coffee sales without needing to pay certification fees.

“Farmers who grow exceptional coffee are not at the mercy of the commodity market,” he added. “When they grow better coffee, roasters can pay a higher price. That gives farmers like Grace more money to invest in their farms, families and communities.”

Under the direction of Education and Sustainability Director Brandon Bir, the Crimson Cup team travels more than 84,000 miles each year to form direct trade relationships with farmers. Their goals are to help farmers improve the quality of their crop, better understand the economics of the coffee trade and plan for a sustainable future.

After Bir visited Grace’s community in 2018, Crimson Cup signed a contract with the community and Kyagalanyi Coffee Ltd., one of the oldest and largest licensed coffee exporters in Uganda. The contract ensures that farmers receive above-market prices to offset the risks around coffee growing.

“Kyagalanyi is committed to making Ugandan coffee more profitable and sustainable,” Bir said. “The company’s Improvement Plan includes three sustainable schemes to provide services to farmers.”

Bir spent a week with the Kyagalanyi group in early 2019 to learn more about its education plan, which is designed support farmers and help them to produce higher quality coffee.

The plan includes an intensive agronomy training program that divides farmers into groups. “Each group has a demonstration plot where they train on a range of eight modules,” he said. “These cover topics such as good agricultural practices, certification requirements, farming as a business and climate change.”

Kyagalanyi Group field staff train each group about four times per year. The trainings follow the crop cycle, so farmers can directly implement what they learn in the demo plot on their own farms.

“Kyagalanyi has discovered that teaching and behavior change can be a slow process that requires frequent visits and practical hands-on training,” Bir noted. “Individual or on-the-spot trainings of households at their own farm is a very effective training approach, as trainings are targeted to the specific problems of an individual or their farm.”

While traveling to collecting stations and processing facilities, Bir stopped at Grace’s small farm and learned about her five-year plan. “Most farmers in her community rarely have the opportunity to look past the end of the week, as budgets are tight,” he noted.
Grace is one of many farmers in the region that work with Kyagalanyi. “She has received guidance on planning as well as practical agronomy practices that set sustainable change in motion,” he said.

He said cultural interchange with farmers is one of the most rewarding parts of his work. “I ended this trip by visiting with the leaders of the West Nile group,” he said. “The best storyteller in the group, who was also a farmer, told the story behind the local tribe and how they came to Uganda. His tale was filled with conflict, hard feelings, and difficult challenges.

“The ending involved burying a hatchet in a fork of the West Nile river, which brought lasting peace to the area,” he said. “It provided a great lesson about the value of forgetting past wrong-doings and moving forward for a more prosperous and peaceful future.”

Crimson Cup plans to continue working with Grace and the Kyagalanyi Group. Bir is developing plans to help the group build a quality control lab. A Licensed Q Grader who does field certification inspections for the Specialty Coffee Association, Bir will visit Uganda again this fall to demonstrate how to taste and grade coffee from the area.

“Our goal is to arm farmers with the skills they need to make decisions that drive quality and sustainability,” he said.