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‘Knowledge is Wealth’: Helping Coffee Farmers Face the COVID-19 Crisis

Sub-Saharan Africa
17. Dec 2020

By David Ojara and Carole Hemmings, TechnoServe

Ovia Birgirwa wakes up every morning at the sound of the roosters crowing, getting an early start so that she can spend hours tending to her fruit-and-coffee farm in western Uganda. The mother of six works hard to support her family, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made that job even more difficult.

Ovia has been growing crops since 2004, and like most farmers, she’s experienced some ups and downs over the years. But the challenge presented by COVID-19 is new. When weekly markets were closed to prevent the spread of the virus, she had nowhere to sell her fruit crops. “I have incurred some losses, especially in pineapples,” she said.

Smallholder coffee farmers across Uganda and East Africa face similar challenges. In a survey carried out by TechnoServe and Laterite, 76% of coffee-farming households in Uganda reported losing income as a result of the pandemic, with the largest loss of income coming from difficulties selling food crops.

But coffee can economically sustain families in a difficult time – if farmers can receive the information they need. The Uganda Coffee Farm College program, a partnership between JDE Peet’s, Enveritas, TechnoServe, and other stakeholders, is working to deliver that information to 30,000 farmers in central and western Uganda. Its experience shows that creativity and resilience can help farmers weather the crisis.

Coffee as a lifeline

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Uganda’s farmers hard. The closure of local markets and land borders has made it particularly difficult for farmers to sell fruits, vegetables, and other food crops: Evalista Ashaba, for example, reported that the price buyers offered for her bananas had fallen by as much as 90%. “We ended up selling at any amount offered,” she said.

By contrast, international demand for coffee has remained strong. The global price for robusta – the coffee variety that is most commonly grown in Uganda –has held steady during the crisis. Most farmers interviewed in Uganda reported that travel restrictions have raised transportation costs and limited competition among buyers for their coffee, meaning that they have earned a slightly lower price this year – but the impact pales in comparison to what has happened with other crops.

The relative stability of coffee means that it is more important than ever to household incomes in rural Uganda. Benson Bejura had to shut down his business dealing livestock, as the markets where he carried out his trade were closed. Now, he’s relying exclusively on his 800 coffee trees to support his family. Based on this experience, Benson has decided to plant an additional 2,000 coffee trees.

For single mother Teddy Nakyajja, it’s the long-term earnings from coffee that have allowed her family to weather the crisis. “During these difficult times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been able to take care of my family comfortably because I had some savings from previous coffee sales. What makes me more secure is that even as I am using my savings, I am sure about getting more money, because coffee is already maturing on the farm,” she said. “I am now determined to establish another coffee farm in the next few years [to prepare] for such uncertainties.”

Farmer Teddy Nakyajja
Farmer Teddy Nakyajja plans to plant more coffee as a way to protect her livelihood. 
© TechnoServe

Bwiino for the coffee farm

Coffee is only an economic lifeline if farmers can effectively grow and harvest the crop, however. The Uganda Coffee Farm College program is working to empower 30,000 farmers to do that by providing training on how to properly apply fertilizer, prevent soil erosion, weed, prune, and adopt other good agricultural practices. This has allowed farmers to increase their yields, reduce their production costs, and earn higher incomes; while a randomized control trial is still being carried out, we have already seen in a survey that 82% of participants who completed the training program reported that their coffee harvests had grown in volume (with about half of this group reporting that the increase had been large), and most did not report a significant increase in their on-farm investments.

But at a time when coffee harvests⁠ – and income – are so vital, the pandemic has disrupted the channels through which this training is provided. The Farm College program is normally delivered through small group trainings, in which farmers gather together at demonstration plots to observe and practice farming techniques. Social distancing regulations made these kinds of meetings impossible, however, so the program has had to innovate with new approaches.

During the strictest part of the lockdown, the program started delivering agronomy advice by SMS to more than 15,000 farming households. “I was excited to see TechnoServe messages on my phone, with my name, in my language. It is my only good memory of the lockdown,” recalled Naboth Arinaitwe. Farmer trainers also called more than 10,000 households to discuss how to keep basic business records for the farm. The pared-down advisory stressed the most important skills. “I have all my bwiino, because knowledge is wealth,” said Robert Mihanda, using a Luganda word meaning “treasured information.”

Robert Mihanda shows off a text message he received
For Robert Mihanda, SMS messages with agronomy advice were an essential tool for managing his farm during the crisis. © TechnoServe

As the restrictions eased, trainers have been able to visit individual farms to provide structured training and personalized advice. “My farmer trainer Moses came to see us and check on how the farm was doing, and it felt good to be personally visited. This not only encouraged me but also reminded me to carry out sucker [stems that grow from the trunk] selection on the stumped coffee, which I had not yet done,” said Herbert Katongole.

Empowered with the information, farmers have been able to continue tending to their crops during the crisis, reaping bigger harvests and earning higher incomes. Ovia didn’t keep records of her production before she enrolled in Farm College, but she sees clearly that her yields have improved. This has allowed her to better support her family and pay school fees: “It is because of coffee that I am able to educate my children.” She also hopes to use her increased income to build a sturdier house and plant more coffee trees.

Despite difficult circumstances, Farm College is providing training that helps farmers improve production and sustain their families. By the time the program reaches its scheduled completion at the end of 2021, it will have benefitted 30,000 coffee growers in the Western and Central regions of Uganda. The partnership also demonstrates how stakeholders from across the spectrum –civil-society organizations, the private sector, and government – can work together to find creative ways to ensure that the millions of coffee growers across Uganda and East Africa can access the information they need to weather the crisis.


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