Making smallholder coffee farming more profitable

There are currently too many obstacles for small-scale coffee farmers to maximise their profit from the crop. Thousands of small-scale coffee farmers are still mired in poverty, despite the fact that Uganda is second only to Ethiopia in Africa for coffee production and that coffee is the most traded commodity in the world, surpassing even oil.

A lack of proper education among our farmers regarding the journey of coffee from the farm to the dining table may be one of the causes of this unfortunate situation.

Profitable coffee farming begins with the use of appropriate planting stock and sound agronomic techniques. To attract good prices, the farmer should plant high-yielding coffee varieties and strive as much as possible to apply fertilisers where the soil is poor, as well as handle the crop properly. Additionally, farmers should plant resistant varieties to common pest and disease attacks. Everyone should read “The Farmer Ownership Model Development Manual” by Joseph Nkandu, executive director of the National Union of Coffee Agri-businesses and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE).

The manual provides a detailed explanation of how vulnerable smallholder coffee farmers are to exploitation and what can be done to minimise the farmers’ losses.

Nkandu, for instance, provides a straightforward illustration of how smallholder farmers endure losses at the hands of middlemen acting as coffee merchants. The smallholder farmer does not own a personal scale. He waits for the trader to use his scale to inform him of the weight of his coffee. The majority of farmers do not even understand how the weighing scale works. However, the traders frequently tamper with the scales and can deduct up to five kilogrammes or more from each bag of coffee produced by the farmers.

The loss can be even greater for farmers who are illiterate. Smallholder farmers lack personal moisture metres and rely on the same ruthless trader to inform them of the coffee’s moisture content percentage.

Frequently, the metre is tampered with. Now, even when the moisture level is acceptable (between 13 and 14 percent), the trader will still claim that it is too high and deviously inform the farmer, “I will still buy your coffee, but since the moisture level is above average, I will deduct four kilogrammes from your payment.” The trader may also deduct the inflated weight of the farmer’s coffee-filled gunny bag. Ofttimes, traders take advantage of farmers’ precarious financial situations by paying significantly less than the coffee’s fair market value, causing farmers unfathomable losses.

However, when a poor farmer desperately needs cash to pay their children’s school fees or for any other pressing need and has no other source of income, selling his coffee while it is still in the garden or leasing out his garden appears to be the next best option.

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