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By michaelward, Feb 22 2013 12:10PM

Just back from an inspirational week visiting fair trade and organic coffee cooperatives in Uganda.

Since last year I have chaired the Board of TWIN and TWIN Trading, a London based alternative trade organisation (http://www.twin.org.uk/). I have only been on the board a year, but in the 1980s I was involved with Robin Murray and Michael Barratt Brown and others when we started TWIN with GLC support.

TWIN works with farmers in the global south to try and improve their position through fair trade. The main commodities with which we are involved are coffee, nuts and cocoa.

This week I went to Uganda with colleagues from TWIN, first to attend the African Fine Coffee Association conference and trade fair in Kampala, and then to travel to the Mount Elgon region to visit coffee cooperatives there.

AFCA brings together brings together traders and industry giants, with smaller local business, academics , non-governmental organisations and government interests as well as coffee farmers from estates and cooperatives. TWIN has now worked in East Africa for more than twenty years, promoting fair trade, helping coops to achieve certification, and driving up quality. Our senior associate in Africa, Andy Carlton, has helped many coops form and grow, working in Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A long term TWIN staff member, Richard Hide, leads a Twin team which is working with eleven African producer co-operatives to develop the Joint Marketing Initiative (JMI) with the support of Comic Relief, to sell high quality certified coffee across the world (http://jmicoffee.org/). Richard works with Kat Nolte, responsible for marketing, and Rachel Wallace, who deals with communications.

One coop with which we are working is the Malawi-based Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union, whose Chief Executive, Harrison Kalua, now chairs the AFCA Board. Mzuzu coffee is now on the shelves in Sainsbury’s .(http://www.fdin.org.uk/2012/12/mzuzu-fairtrade-coffee-hits-shelves-in-sainsburys ).I talked to many of the producer groups with which TWIN works. Their commitment, dedication and hard work are amazing, humbling and extraordinary. I found the people from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) particularly impressive – working to rebuild an industry ravaged by decades of war. In the 1950s coffee from the Congo had a high reputation, but since then it has largely been absent from world markets. Rebuilding their export trade helps farmers and their communities move beyond a subsistence economy. The three DRC coops with which we work are Sopacdi, Furaha and Muungano

After the AFCA event it was time for the five hour taxi ride to Mbale to visit Gumutindo, a dynamic coop in the Mount Elgon region (http://www.gumutindocoffee.co.ug/). In their own words:

“Gumutindo is an organisation of smallholder coffee farmers who produce washed Arabica coffee for the specialty coffee market. We live and work on the misty ridges and in the lush upland valleys of Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano on the eastern border of Uganda.”

Kat Nolte, the energetic JMI marketing person from Seattle, filled a nine-seat minibus with an eclectic mix of coffee people. Our guide was Lydia, the young quality control manager at Gumutindo, who had been at AFCA. Then there was Raf, who leads on fair trade for Oxfam Belgium; Steve, from Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland, California; Robyn and Micky, who run a coffee roaster business in Vancouver – and a Norwegian and an Australian, travelling on to Kenya. Stopped en route at Jinja to see the source of the Nile.

We were greeted at Mbale by Willington Wamayeye, Gumutindo’s long serving Managing Director, who is also one of the producer members on TWIN’s Board in London. TWIN has been a regular customer for the cooperative’s coffee (since 1998, in fact), and so had the other buyers with our group.

Although I have been drinking coffee for many years, I am an absolute beginner in understanding its production, so it was great to see the process in detail: sorting, milling, quality control, and despatching. The experts asked all the penetrating questions – I just watched and listened. I then met members of the board of the cooperative, talked to them about the progress they have made – and thanked them for freeing Willington to come to our meetings in London.

After seeing the Gumutindo factory, we went up Mount Elgon with Willington to Sipi Falls – a staggeringly beautiful waterfall high in the coffee growing area. The landscape is very green, lush vegetation and a very fertile soil which produces excellent coffee. It was a stiff climb down to the bottom of the waterfall, and up again, guided by a couple of local young men.

Climate change presents a serious threat to these smallholder coffee farmers who are already suffering from increased climate variability. Impacts include longer drought periods and heavier rainfall which in turn lead to poor quality coffee cherry, low yields and severe erosion.

Gumutindo’s farmers are working with Twin to plan and implement activities that enhance the climate resilience of its members and the wider community, and to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change. Combining local knowledge and coping strategies with scientific climate projections, farmers have prioritised specific adaptation activities to help protect against the impacts of climate change - specifically soil erosion and soil fertility.

Women have traditionally played a subordinate role in African coffee farming. They do much of the work on the farm but do not control the money earned from coffee sales. The JMI co-operatives are part of a movement to change this. Women farmers are leaders in the cooperatives, they sit on the boards and head up their primary society village-level co-operatives. They are members of the co-operatives in their own right. At Gumutindo, farmers have gone one step further in promoting fully traceable ‘Coffee Grown by Women’ with a premium paid towards projects which support women’s empowerment.

On my final day we again went to the mountain. Gumutindo is a union of sixteen primary cooperatives. One of these, at an altitude of over 2,000 metres, is Nasufwa. It was a long, bumpy ride in a 4 wheel drive. This year Blue Bottle Coffee in California are buying a container load of Nasufwa’s coffee, and the visit gave Steve from Blue Bottle the opportunity to ask detailed questions about techniques of coffee drying and compost making.

High up, near the Nasufwa compound, Gumutindo have bought some pasture land, at the centre of which is another spectacular waterfall, Kajere Falls. They have plans for a campsite for visitors and a place for the cooperatives to have meetings.

Later that day I went back to Entebbe airport, near Kampala, for the flight back to London. I travelled with Justine Watalunga from the Gumutindo Board, who is making her first visit to the UK to participate in Fair Trade Fortnight.

Strange to travel from hot, sunny, 30 Celsius tropical Africa straight back to cold wintry London.

Many people in Uganda and the neighbouring countries still live in extreme poverty. But the leadership of the cooperatives – and the commitment of the present generation of leaders to bring on young women and men to succeed them – must give great hope for the future.

Thankyou Willington!

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