Arabica coffee was introduced to Uganda at the beginning of the 1900’s, its origins said to be Arabian, hence the name. Robusta coffee is indigenous to Uganda, and has been a part of Ugandan life for centuries. The difference between the two varieties is their taste:
Arabica coffee has a smooth taste with a strong aroma. The seed is tetrapoid, meaning it’s a self-pollinating plant. Coffea arabica has two botanical cultivars, Typica and Bourbon – Uganda grows Typica. The varietal is Kent. (The two terms refer to a specific variety of the coffee species/trees and the botanical family of its origin). Arabica coffee dominates the world market and is regarded by most people as producing the highest quality beans.
Robusta coffee refers to any varieties of coffee canephora. The brand is distinguished by its taxonomy content or high caffeine content, normally twice the content of Arabica, good for espresso blending to increase body and crema content.
Coffee is one of the most important cash crops in Uganda playing a major role in the livelihoods of many poor people and is a major foreign exchange earner in Uganda. Ugandan coffee has a sweet aroma that is used to produce many varieties of coffee which include the Italian cappuccino, much in demand, and has a very good intrinsic quality due to high altitude, soils and farming systems not easily found elsewhere in the world
Coffee berries, containing the coffee seeds or “beans”, are produced by several species of the small evergreen bush. The two most commonly grown are the highly regarded Coffea arabica, and the “robusta” form of the hardier Coffea canephor. Once ripe, coffee berries can be picked, processed, dried then roasted to varying degrees, depending on the desired flavour. They are then ground and brewed to create coffee.
Farmers in Uganda use mainly the low input system and households strongly rely on family labour for production. Coffee is mostly grown in mixed farms where it is intercropped with food crops such as bananas and beans which ensure households’ food security. It is also grown among shade trees that result into sustainable coffee production, while ensuring a social, economic and suitable environment that requires a minimal use of agro-chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides – this practice has made Uganda a suitable country for organic coffee production. The government agency responsible for the sector, the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), estimates that about 500,000 households currently depend on coffee production. Annual production is made up of approximately 15% Arabica and 85% Robusta.
Coffee is mostly grown in mixed farms where it is intercropped with food crops such as bananas and beans which ensure households’ food security. It is also grown among shade trees that result into sustainable coffee production, while ensuring a social, economic and suitable environment that requires a minimal use of agro-chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. Cheap labour available in Uganda enhances great opportunities for investment in the coffee sector.
There are two main harvest seasons in Uganda for both Arabica and Robusta coffee (March-June and September-November). The main production season for Robusta ranges May-August for Masaka and Western regions and November to February for Central, Eastern regions. In the case of Arabica, the main seasons are April-June for Western Region and October-February for Eastern and West Nile Regions.
Wild coffee’s energizing effect was likely first discovered in the northeast region of Ethiopia. Coffee cultivation first took place in southern Arabia; the earliest credible evidence of coffee drinking appears in the middle of the 15th century in the Sufi shrines of Yemen. From the Muslim world, coffee consumption and cultivation spread to India, to Italy, and on to the rest of Europe, Indonesia and the Americas.
According to legend, human cultivation of coffee began after goats in Ethiopia were seen mounting each other after eating the leaves and fruits of the coffee tree. However, in Ethiopia there are still some locales where people drink a tisane made from the leaves of the coffee tree.
In East Africa and Yemen, coffee was used in native religious ceremonies that competed with the Christian Church. As a result, the Ethiopian Church banned its secular consumption until the reign of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia. The beverage was also banned in Ottoman Turkey during the 17th century for political reasons and was associated with rebellious political activities in Europe.
The first written record of coffee made from roasted coffee beans comes from Arabian scholars who wrote that it was useful in prolonging their working hours. The Arab innovation in Yemen of making a brew from roasted beans, spread first among the Egyptians and Turks, and later on found its way around the world.
An important export commodity, coffee was the top agricultural export for twelve countries in 2004, and it was the world’s seventh-largest legal agricultural export by value in 2005. Some controversy is associated with coffee cultivation and its impact on the environment. Consequently, organic coffee is an expanding market. Today coffee is a leading commodity in world trade. At the other end of the chain, it’s a different story. Beans are still usually picked by hand; labour is high and income low.
Coffea arabica was originally grown in the mountains of Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, hence its name and also grown in the Southwestern highlands of Ethiopia and Southeastern Sudan. Cultivated in Uganda for nearly a century, Arabica coffee is primarily grown in three areas of the country which boast higher altitudes: the Eastern Mbale/Sebei district which borders Kenya, the West Nile region, and the far West of Uganda on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Arabica coffee is more competitive on the international market because of its superior quality. There is a new variety known locally as Tuzza – more commonly referred to as Catimor – which performs well in low altitude areas of the country predominantly zoned for Robusta coffee, (1,200-1,500 m). This variety is known for its high yielding capabilities, drought resistance and tolerance to diseases presenting a very attractive opportunity for investment.
Three types of Arabica of varying grades are available:
Type 1: Bugisu Washed Arabica is the most renowned of the Ugandan Arabicas. Grown in and around Mbale on the slopes of the Elgon Mountain range, this coffee compares very favourably with other East African high grown coffees. Named after the tribe who farm these slopes, Bugisu coffee is processed prior to export and the clean coffee is separated into three main grades, classified by bean size: Bugisu AA, Bugisu AB and Bugisu Peaberry.
Type 2: Wugar (Okoro Washed Arabica) is grown in the West Nile Region of Uganda, at an altitude ranging from 1,450 to 1,800 metres. This is a newly marketed coffee which has already established a brand name and continues to improve. Unlike Bugisu, Wugar is marketed in a Fair Average Quality (FAQ) form. “Fair Average Quality” is a term used to describe unsorted, and sometimes uncleaned, coffee from the huller, when it is marketed locally as beans.
Type 3: Drugar, the third and final Arabica coffee from Kawacom, is unwashed and originates from the Western regions of Uganda, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a hard Arabica, grown on the slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains (the Mountains of the Moon). The varying altitudes of cultivation (between 1,400 – 1,800 metres) give Drugar (Dry Ugandan Arabica) supremacy over other East African hard Arabicas.
Coffea canephora or coffea robusta, more commonly known as Robusta, is a variety of coffee which has its origins in central and western sub-Saharan Africa. It is a species of flowering plant in the Rubiaceae family which has two main varieties – Robusta and Nganda.
The Robusta strain was first collected in 1890 from the Lomani River, a tributary of the Congo River, and was conveyed from Zaire to Brussels to Java around 1900. From Java, further breeding resulted in the establishment of Robusta plantations in many countries. Robusta is less susceptible to disease than Coffea arabica and can be cultivated in lower altitudes and warmer climates where Arabica will not thrive. In particular the spread of the devastating coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix), to which Arabica is vulnerable, hastened the uptake of the resistant Robusta. Coffee leaf rust is found in virtually all countries that produce coffee.
The plant has a shallow root system and grows as a tree or shrub to about 10 metres. It flowers irregularly, taking about 10–11 months for cherries to ripen, producing oval shaped beans. The Robusta plant has a greater crop yield than that of Coffea arabica, and contains more caffeine – 2.7% compared to Arabica’s 1.5%. As it is less susceptible to pests and disease, Robusta needs less in the way of herbicides and pesticides than Arabica.
Robusta is easier to care for and therefore is cheaper to produce. Roasted Robusta beans produce a strong, full-bodied coffee with a distinctive earthy flavour, but usually with more bitterness than Arabica due to its pyrazine organic compound. Since Arabica beans have a smoother taste with a richer flavour, they are often considered superior, while the harsher Robusta beans are mostly used as filler in lower-grade coffee blends. For these reasons, about three-quarters of coffee cultivated worldwide is Arabica. However, the powerful flavour can be desirable in a blend to give it perceived “strength” and “finish”, noticeably in Italian coffee culture. Good quality Robusta beans are used in traditional Italian espresso blends, to provide a full-bodied taste and a better foam head (known as “crema”). Approximately 20% of the coffee produced in the world is Robusta.
Originating in upland forests in Ethiopia, Coffea canephora grows indigenously in Western and Central Africa. It was not recognized as a species of coffea until the 19th century, about a hundred years after coffea arabica.
Robusta coffee is grown in the low altitude areas of Central, Eastern, Western and South Eastern Uganda up to 1,200 metres above sea level. Ugandan Robusta has intrinsic quality attributes which attract a premium on the international coffee market.