Uganda’s coffee sector has been making significant strides in recent years, positioning itself as Africa’s second-largest coffee producer. A national strategic plan, launched in 2021, aims to almost triple the coffee production from the 2019/20 season to 20 million 60 kg bags by 2024/25. This ambitious plan seeks to elevate annual coffee export earnings from $583 million to $1.5 billion, with objectives to reduce harvest and post-harvest losses by 50%, expand total coffee acreage by 20%, and double yields per coffee tree.
Uganda is renowned for its robusta coffee production, with Coffea canephora, the robusta species, constituting around 85% of the country’s coffee output. The introduction of three new high-yield robusta varieties over the past five years has contributed to increased production. However, Uganda’s five-year strategic plan, led by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), also envisions the growth of Coffea arabica, which commands higher market prices and holds potential for enhancing employment and income along the coffee value chain.
One challenge facing this goal is the recurring occurrence of coffee crop pests and diseases, such as the black coffee twig borer and coffee red blister disease. In response, the National Coffee Research Institute (NACORI), with support from the European Union, is preparing to introduce at least five new arabica coffee varieties that exhibit resistance to these pests and diseases. These novel varieties are anticipated to reduce the reliance on agricultural chemicals and associated costs for coffee farmers.
Pascal Musoli, a plant breeder and coffee and cocoa researcher at NACORI, expressed optimism about the release of these new arabica varieties. Musoli stated that these varieties demonstrate a remarkable 200% improvement in performance compared to existing ones, potentially leading to annual harvests of 3,700 kg per hectare. Currently, most farmers yield between 500 kg to 1,600 kg per hectare.
These newly developed arabica varieties are characterized by compact bush growth with smaller canopies, but they produce slightly larger coffee beans. Moreover, they have been meticulously crafted with an emphasis on cup quality.
The development of these arabica varieties commenced in 2019 when NACORI partnered with the EU-EAC Market Access Program (MARKUP), a regional initiative aimed at enhancing sales in the European Union. This initiative encompasses five Eastern African countries within the East Africa Community (EAC), which includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. It is noteworthy that over 70% of Uganda’s coffee exports find their way to European Union customers. The project, funded by the 11th European Development Fund, involved extensive data collection and analysis of coffee yields and the incidence of pests and diseases, leading to the validation of several candidate varieties that are now poised for release to coffee growers. While Arabica varieties like SL 14, SL28, KP423, and KP162 have been grown in Uganda for many decades, SL28 and KP162 have exhibited vulnerability to leaf rust and coffee berry disease.
The successful implementation of these new varieties in the field is of paramount importance. Previous experiences with the introduction of new robusta varieties have shown that yields achieved at research stations do not always replicate on farms, where conditions are less controlled. The strategic plan by UCDA underscores the importance of addressing these discrepancies, as farms have achieved yields of only 1.4 tons/ha, well below the 2.5 tons/ha recorded at research plots.
Insufficient research funding has emerged as a significant hindrance to the development, roll-out, and adoption of improved coffee varieties in Uganda. NACORI’s coffee research programs primarily rely on an annual budget grant from the National Agricultural Research Organization, an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries. Additionally, NACORI receives 10% of the nation’s coffee cess (export tax) income or 0.01% of the total coffee export revenue. However, the inconsistency in this income makes research planning challenging and jeopardizes ongoing projects.
Addressing this issue necessitates research and development in various areas, including general agronomy, pest and disease management, and climate-smart farming.
Uganda’s vision is to achieve upper-middle-income status by 2032, with coffee being a key contributor to the nation’s economy. Coffee has consistently been Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earner for over two decades, accounting for approximately 20% of the total. The strategic plan aims to generate at least 40,000 jobs within the coffee value chain if successfully implemented. This involves modernizing post-harvest handling and storage, improving coffee processing and value addition, and expanding coffee cultivation to higher elevations, taking advantage of the higher prices and prestige associated with arabica.
Uganda has already made significant progress in planting and exporting more arabica, increasing its share from 8% in 1991/92 to 24% in 2017/18. However, in 2023/24, the share of arabica in production dropped to 14%, primarily due to the faster growth of robusta since 2019.