Uganda's wild coffee

by on June 18, 2010

The Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog beat me to summarizing a recent peer-reviewed paper, Kibale Forest Wild Coffee: Challenges to market-based conservation in Africa (abstract). The paper outlined the (unsuccessful) attempt at creating a market for products based on wild robusta coffee growing in western Uganda's Kibale National Park.

This nearly 800-sq-km park in the Rift Valley on the border with Congo protects lowland and mid-elevation evergreen and semi-deciduous rainforest. Areas surrounding the park have high human populations, many who rely on subsistence agriculture of mostly plantain, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane. The regional deforestation, save for the park, is evident in the satellite image.


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Kibale is very biodiverse, with 11 species of primates, 325 species of birds, and at least 140 species of butterflies. This forested area was highly exploited in the 1970s. Agricultural encroachment destroyed roughly 17% of the area. When Kibale National Park was officially created in 1993, use of the park's resources by local people were restricted, causing conflicts.

Two species of coffee grow wild in many parts of the park. Coffea eugenioides and C. canephora [1]. The former is widespread but not abundant, while the latter (known as robusta coffee and used commercially in many inexpensive grocery store coffee blends) is less ubiquitous but very abundant where it grows, covering 7800 ha in the park.

The goal of the project was to manage sustainable harvesting of the coffee and provide income for local communities. Ultimately, the harvested robusta would be blended with Ugandan certified organic arabica coffee and, through private sector partnerships, be marketed as Uganda or Kibale Wild Forest Coffee. Appealing enough. The proposed ratio was 10% Kibale robusta to 90% Ugandan organic arabica. This seems a bit low, in my opinion, to really capture the "authenticity" of the product, but was the best deemed feasible.

Things fell apart when the quality of the arabica was not up to snuff, and the harvest yield of the Kibale beans would have resulted in a blend that contained less than 2% wild robusta. That seemed less viable, so other coffee-derived products were considered, but funding ran out and without sales revenue to keep it going, the project withered. You can read more about other factors in the failure in the summary at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

The idea was a good one, and the concept of providing local communities with opportunities for sustainable use of the land, including agriculture, in the buffer zones of protected areas is not novel. It's a typical management strategy in the biosphere reserves of Mexico. An example is the organic, shade-grown coffee produced in the buffer zone of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, which by and large been a great success. While it was not without problems or detractors, a lot of this success can be attributed to the commitment in the region by Starbucks, which uses the coffee for its organic shade-grown Mexico variety. I wrote about the project and coffee in this post

Thus, big buy-in from major players might be needed to truly get a project like this off the ground, and I think the investment is worth it for local people and the environment.

[1] Kasenene, J. 2002. Forest association and phenology of wild coffee in Kibale National Park, Uganda. African Jrl. Ecology 36:241-250.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Coffee and the environment,Coffee regions

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