Coffee is a widely consumed beverage all over the world and in Uganda, a country that also lists it as one of its main cash crops. The hilly and mountainous areas in the east are ideal for its growth.
Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda is one of the many places where Arabica coffee favourably grows. From a young age, Job Soyekwo and Juma Chebet smelled the aroma of coffee and enjoyed its flavour.
Now working as guides in the popular Sipi Falls area in Kapchorwa district, they have developed a coffee tourism experience that they include in their itinerary as a way of getting tourists to understand and appreciate the coffee growing and brewing process.
Soyekwo says coffee tours are becoming part of the tourist attractions in the Sipi Falls area.
Hiking up the falls and abseiling are the main tourist activities in the area.
The tour guides are drumming up efforts already undertaken by the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the body that promotes the country’s potential. In 2018, UTB held a symposium dubbed "Unlocking Uganda’s Coffee Tourism Potential", which sought to share ideas about the potential of coffee as a tourist attraction.
There is a close relationship between farmers and tour operators.
A case in point is Soyekwo and Chebet who do not own farms, but rather collaboratively work with coffee farmers to give tourists tours. For the tours, local tourists pay Ush30,000 (S8) while international tourists pay $15.
I went on a coffee tour recently. It starts with selecting parchment. Parchment is the product resulting from washing the fruit of the coffee plant and removing all outer layers before drying.
On the tour, you prepare a small piece of land known as a nursery bed, in which the coffee seed is planted.
The tourist is given a hoe and follows the farmer to the garden to plant the coffee beans. The visitor is encouraged to name the crop so that they can return and check on its growth.
The growing crop becomes a partnership with the farmer who will nurturing it. The coffee will take about a month or so to germinate. After eight months, the plant is transplanted from the nursery bed to a more spacious spot.
During the tour, the visitor is taught about how coffee grows. It takes up to five years before harvesting the first cherries. The farm also has fully grown coffee from which a tourist can harvest beans.
The coffee berries are picked carefully, and we were shown how. The harvest is either put in a basket or a plate and taken to the house or compound for drying. The seed is then pulped using a machine and placed in a container for 24 hours for the fermentation process to begin.
Soyekwo and Chebet then show us how the seeds are washed, dried and sorted. The shells are winnowed and the beans are roasted over moderate fire, giving off a nice aroma.
We were then instructed to get the roasted beans and pound them in a mortar until they become powder. Meanwhile, the farmer was boiling water as she directed and guided us on how long to pound the beans to the required consistency.
While all this was happening, I requested to tell a story about Kaldi, a young herdsman who discovered coffee.
The Ethiopian legend goes: It was just another day in the wild while grazing his goats in the Kaffa Forest in southern Ethiopia when Kaldi's goats chewed on wild coffee berries. He noticed that the animals were getting animated.
So he became curious to find out what they had eaten. He tasted the coffee berries and became excited too. So he harvested some of them and took them to nearby monks and told them what he had just experienced. They chastised him for using evil plants, and threw the berries in the fire. However, as the berries started burning, they gave off a beautiful aroma that drew the monks closer.
They asked Kaldi to harvest more and take to them. They chewed on the coffee berries and realised that they stayed awake and were invigorated.
They started using coffee to stay awake during Christian night prayers and vigils, and as they preached to followers, they told them about coffee. The "gospel" about taking coffee took root and caught on.
As I ended my narration, the coffee was ready to be poured over the boiled water for us to enjoy.
A recent trip to the Horn of Africa revealed to me how deeply integrated coffee is in Ethiopian culture and lifestyle. Right from the airport, the aroma of the beverage welcomes you.
Women serve coffee to travellers who choose to enjoy the hot drink before entering the land of origins, as Ethiopia is christened.
Soyekwo and Chebet explain that coffee tourism is still catching on, adding that since the easing of the lockdown in Uganda, they have been depending mainly on domestic tourists which has helped them survive the negative economic effects of the pandemic.
“I have guided about 150 local tourists in Sipi, and at least 15 foreign resident tourists since the lockdown,” Soyekwo says.
He also explained that coffee tours are gaining popularity with international tourists who initially learn of it through his website, and then visit the area for face to face interactions.
Soyekwo and Chebet are eager to promote coffee tourism.
UTB CEO Lilly Ajarova has encouraged tour operators and tourists to taste the beverage in areas like Rwenzori, and beyond. Tourists, as potential consumers, enjoy on-farm experiences.
“We have establishments of farms and coffee shops in western and eastern Uganda. Tourists are taken to farms and through the whole process from planting, how the coffee is taken care of, picking berries, drying, roasting and grinding them.
“Kasese and in Sipi are gaining and drawing interest from tourists. We need to promote them. This is why one of our efforts last year was to create awareness about agro-tourism to give broader tourism understanding, interest and opportunities a farmer can have with their farm,” Ajarova said.
Uganda’s coffee exports increased from 3.557 million bags in 2015/16 to 5.103 million bags in 2019/2020.
Coffee is a major cash crop in the north-western area of Mbale, Manafa and Budadiri where Arabica is grown. The areas neighbour Mount Elgon, which borders Uganda and the western parts of Kenya where coffee is cultivated as well.