Tucked away in the hills just outside Mubende town is Kaweri Coffee Plantation, a 2,512 hectare (6,207 acres) operation that is arguably Uganda’s best kept secret.
In the late 1990s the German company Neumann Kaffe Gruppe (NKG) was looking to start a robusta plantation. After assessing several options in South America, Asia and Africa they settled on Uganda.
“Uganda was chosen partly because it is part of the Greater Congo Basin, which is where the robusta coffee has its origins,” said Kaweri Coffee Plantation managing director Etienne Steyn.
NKG, which accounts for one in every ten kilogrammes of world coffee demand, got land in Mubende and set about setting up a plantation to rival similar operations in Brazil and Mexico.
Planting of 1800 hectares of coffee was completed between 2001 and 2004.
“All coffee nurseries within the district, and as far as Mbarara, were exhausted to meet the required number of seedlings needed for planting”. We now have our own nurseries,” Steyn said on a recent tour of the plantation.
There are currently about 1.8m trees on the plantation on 1650 hectares, now under coffee. Another 685 hectares (27% of the farm) is occupied by natural highland rain forest and is fast becoming a sanctuary for all sorts of wildlife – serval and civet cats, bush babies, vervet and colobus monkeys, various antelopes such as Reedbuck, duiker and bush buck, many rare species of butterflies and many species of birds.
Steyn said that the plantation, which harvested its first crop in 2005, is set to produce 2,500 tons of coffee this season. This means Kaweri will account for two in every hundred bags of coffee produced in Uganda, the largest single producer of coffee in the country.
According to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) there are about half a million coffee farmers in Uganda.
But Kaweri is not only the single highest coffee producer in Uganda but may also have the highest productivity per unit area than any other operation in the country.
"According to Steyn the farm’s productivity is about 2.2 tons per hectare compared to the national average for the robusta of half a ton per hectare.Better farming methods and the judicious use of research are at the heart of these high productivity numbers at Kaweri....
“Every month we take leaf samples and send them to UK for analysis, in addition annually we take soil samples for analysis in Brazil. From these we are able to determine accurately what fertilisers and other inputs we have to apply in different parts of the farm,” Steyn said.
The farm does not however employ irrigation as there are no streams or surface water on the farm and in 2013, Geophysical surveys showed no underground water was available for irrigation purposes.
Kaweri markets a washed robusta and has the largest wet processing plant on the continent with a capacity to process 350 tons of coffee cherry daily.
Internationally Kaweri has distinguished itself as having produced a robusta coffee that is traded by name: Colobus (Screen 18), Turaco (Screen 15) and Reed Buck (Screen 12) coffees, which allows the farm to command a premium over and above the normal prices.
Kaweri does not employ the use of outgrowers although it employs at least 600 people throughout the year and up to 3000 during the peak harvest period of six months.
“During harvesting we often exhaust all the available labour around the farm and have to go further afield to hire workers to harvest the crop,” Steyn said.
The nature of the robusta tree is such that it is unlikely that mechanised harvesting will replace manual labour, so for the duration of the 99-year lease NKG has on Kaweri we can expect that it will continue to serve as a source of employment throughout the year.
Beyond creating jobs for people in the area, Kaweri supports the surrounding communities and the farm has drilled eight boreholes, built a new primary school in nearby Kitemba village and has helped in transferring know-how to local coffee farmers.
“Support activities include the establishment of extension services, development of professional farmer organisations, capacity building on value addition processes and market access as a result they are today marketing in bulk directly to exporters – cutting out the middleman and getting paid more,” Steyn said.
Steyn, himself a former coffee farmer in Zimbabwe said, it would an uphill task for local farmers trying to replicate the scale of the $20m (sh52b) Kaweri plantation.
Speaking from his experience in Zimbabwe he said commercial farmers have little support in Uganda.
“We had farmer associations in every district which provided extension services, lobbied for our interests, facilitated in warehousing. In addition there were agricultural banks whose services were structured taking into account the industry and its nuances,” Steyn said.
Despite a compensation case that is still winding its way through the courts and hangs over the project like a dark cloud, the farm’s target is to achieve production of 3,500 tons a season.
Industry players are genuinely impressed by what is happening in Kaweri.
“It’s a massive, well run operation and is a good story of what can be done in this country. Its just sad we don’t have a local testimony like that,” said Andrew Rugasira, founder and Chairman coffee processor Good African Coffee.