KASESE – Basongora Coffee farmers at the foothills of protected Rwenzori Mountains National Park (RMNP) in Kasese District, southwest of the Capital, Kampala are earning extra money in a fascinating “From the Garden to the Cup” new coffee tourism experience.
One such group is the Busongora Joint Farmers Association, a community that is adjacent to Rwenzori Mountains National Park.
Nelson Kibikwano, a farmer warmly welcomes us to one of the coffee farms in the breathtaking Rwenzori landscape. It is a beautiful lush green area on the slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains in the Kasese District. The farm is part of the coffee experience set up through the Association with the help of World Wide Fund for nature-Uganda Country Office (WWF).
This product, at a modest fee, offers the tourists a chance to experience the ‘coffee journey’ and those that have taken part have been awed in an awesome experience involving “roasting, grinding your own coffee on a traditional grinding stone, making the coffee, and finally sipping it”.
Inside the Busongora ecotourism experience
The guided coffee tour 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 seedlings. The visitor is encouraged to name or give a pet name to the crop so that they can return and check on its growth.
The growing crop becomes a partnership with the farmer who will nurture 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 or 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.
Tourists then are lectured on how the seeds are washed, dried, and sorted. The shells are winnowed and the beans are roasted over a 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. Others were given a grinding stone to feel the experience. Meanwhile, the farmers were boiling water as they directed and guided us on how long to pound the beans to the required consistency.
The initiative has opened up the town of Busongora to local and international recognition and most notably, has acted as a gateway to expose the once silent little Ugandan town as an ecotourism destination. Their dream is to export their coffee directly from Busongora to the international market “so that we can get good prices, good income, and bonus from Fair Trade.”
At the Coffee House, each kilogram of value-added coffee is being sold at UGX.20, 000, almost thrice the normal Ugandan market price.
Coffee is Uganda’s leading cash crop earning the country the largest share of foreign exchange outside tourism. The integration of coffee as a tourism product according to experts, therefore, creates a powerful economic combination that is well exploited because currently, value addition remains fragmented.
This, and such other new various alternative livelihood interlinked interventions including tourism promotion and environmental conservation, the project aims at reducing physical dependence on protected areas and in this case, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park, Daniel Ndizihiwe, Wildlife and Protected Areas Manager at WWF Uganda Country Office told reporters.
“If you promote sustainable coffee farming using sustainable land management systems, it contributes to protected area (the Rwenzori Mountains National Park) management because, the buffer isn’t destroyed and the farmers will benefit because they will be getting money from their coffee,” Mr. Ndizihiwe says.
He explains farmers are also guaranteed productivity and production since they are following a sustainable management practice.
From a tourism angle, he says, “We saw [that] this is the main trail that is leading to the peak where this is going to be their niche since all people coming from mountain hiking will be interested in taking a cup of organic coffee. This improves ecotourism within the community, hence reducing pressure on the park.”
He says most of the activities taking place in areas close to the park have an impact on the intervention work that is taking place at the level of protected area management and that it is very important to collaborate and work with those communities living in that very area so that all the work they do are basically compatible with conservation work.
“The coffee you have just tasted here is being grown following norms of organic farming but also sustainable management practices. All the activities should really be compatible. That’s why we encourage sustainable land management in the farming system they use. It is grown with the intention of stabilizing the buffer. They will increase production of coffee.”
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park has been a focal point for international recognitions and has Africa’s third highest peak (Mount Margherita, 5,109 m). It was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1994. The Park’s biodiversity includes natural habitats of endangered species and rich and unique flora. Along the 160 km park border, there are many local communities that have for long been economically poor with very limited access to a variety of goods and services hence putting park resources under pressure.
James Okware, the Senior Warden in charge of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park, says the protected area has been under increasing pressure due to high population growth in the region and the corresponding increasing demand for forest resources, agricultural land leading to loss of biodiversity, landslides, soil erosion, and reduced water quality.
“UWA and WWF partnered with this community to develop a product which connects the communities with the park, which is the coffee experience. With this experience, we allow our tourists who come to visit Rwenzori [Mountains National Park] to come here and have this coffee experience, from the farm to the cup, and in this process, tourists come and experience this as well enter the park. In this process we allow more time spent by the tourists in the communities so that they spend more money which is very good for our communities and conservations”.
Okware says that through the interlinked livelihood coffee project communities, have been able to successfully benefit from sustainable tourism, siting reduced cases of encroachment on the Park.
Before this community intervention and others around the park, Okware adds that “this protected area was considered a liability by the local population due to problem animals from the Park, among other things”.
Alice Natukunda, a Community Conservation Officer attached to UWA says bringing consumers to farms and ensuring that they are provided with all the amenities they need in terms of transport, housing and on-farm experiences will also encourage increased incomes as farmers and stakeholders involved in the hospitality and tourism sectors become more important due to their overall visibility.
“We support our communities to make sure they get some livelihood projects which can sustain them without them encroaching on the park. We believe that once we support them with livelihood projects, they cannot think of going to the park,” she says adding that:
“At this coffee house, for example, all members are engaged in coffee and they can’t think of going to the park to do any illegal activities.”
Despite the indisputable fact that the eco-friendly methods introduced by WWF and its partners hail many advantages, one particular intervention posed a great challenge that cannot be overlooked.
According to Nelson Kibikwano, a farmer, Coffee farming has been the main source of income for communities in the area for decades.
He says for successive generations, the farmers held on to the ‘stagnated’ nature of traditional coffee farming methods which not only gave them poor yields but also failed to empower them economically. Herein when WWF and its partners introduced farming methods that sought to satisfy both criteria and more, the farmers were excited and openly welcomed the initiative.
WWF through the partnership with the local government of Kasese district trained farmers in climate-smart agriculture which included planting shade trees among the coffee bushes, digging trenches in the gardens, mulching, planting grass strips along the trenches, planting cover crops, and stumping old coffee bushes among others.
“People in the area have largely been dependent on coffee farming for their livelihoods for generations. Asking them to stump their old coffee bushes and start afresh is the most challenging part of this process,” said Ndizihiwe.
Despite the fact that once stumped, the coffee bushes will produce more yield on sprouting again, this was and still is unfavorable to many due to the fact that most of the members of the community have no alternative sources of livelihood that they can depend on for what they call a substantially ‘long’ period required to regrow the coffee. This factor forced some farmers to unwillingly shun the method. Who will fund their children’s education and put food on their table? How will they cater to their basic needs? This is where the dilemma occurs.
Despite this, there is glimmering hope as the Association continues to grow and flourish. They conduct annual training to teach other interested parties how to grow, harvest, and process coffee. They have also opened up a forum to sensitize the farmers on key-related issues such as child labor, domestic violence, and gender mainstreaming.
This has been highly effective and has led to the empowerment of women in this village. To date 328 out of the 516 members of the Association are women. This is more than half of the members; a fact that cannot be overlooked in a deep-rooted patriarchal society.
Through ecotourism, the farmers have been able to receive visitors from all corners of the world including France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy. Most, if not all visitors, end up buying coffee from the farmers. The smell of good Arabica coffee is undeniably a takeaway experience.
The hardworking farmers might not fully understand ecotourism now, but they will soon fully grasp the concept. What is undeniably evident to most of them is that the benefits outweigh the challenges.
On his part, the WWF Uganda Country Office Director, David Duli said the drivers of degradation of natural resources in greater Rwenzori Protect Area is generally human actions and limited attention by policymakers on the gravity of Climate Change but said several approaches are being implemented to improve ecosystem health and human wellbeing and reverse degradation.