Leadership, Vision and Fairtrade Certification Help Power Better Living Conditions for Smallholder
I have been invited to spend two days with the leaders and farmers of the Ankole Coffee Producers’ Cooperative Union in Buchenyi, Western Uganda, as part of a trip with the Board of Fairtrade Belgium. The Union, founded in mid-2000, is made up of 25 coffee cooperatives. It buys coffee from its members, completes the processes of hulling, sorting and bagging, and sells to buyers internationally.
Inspiring vision and leadership
The Union, which now represents some 9,000 farmers, was originally created by three coffee farmers. It was a big commitment for them, as the CEO recounts today. They collected amongst themselves a few hundred dollars of working capital and convinced other farmers to entrust them with their “cash crop” - coffee - on credit, to get started as a selling organisation. This succeeded because of their ability to communicate a vision for the wider farming community – one where empowered farmers can create better living conditions for themselves and their families. But empowering farmers to become more business-minded when subsistence farming is the norm requires an ambitious change of behaviour – which is where leadership over the years has been key to success.
Unlocking opportunity through the Fairtrade certification
The turning point to the venture’s success came with the Fairtrade certification in 2009. It opened up access to funding at reasonable interest rates and brought new international buyers. The Fairtrade certification also provided a minimum sales price for coffee - reducing the impact of price volatility – and a “premium”, which farmers reinvest in new processing capabilities, education, technical skills or medical care, to name a few.
A vision for the future
Today, the CEO continues to inspire smallholder coffee farmers to become more business-minded, and is pushing forward an ambitious agenda:
To increase the cooperative’s added value in the coffee supply chain - this could mean taking foot in Europe directly or via partnership, and in the longer term building the coffee-drinking culture in Uganda.
To encourage a savings culture among farmers, encouraging the creation of grassroots Saving & Credit cooperatives to provide loans at reasonable interest rates.
To build farmers’ business acumen and provide further training in agricultural practices, quality and productivity.
To educate farmers about climate management so that they can be better prepared to deal with climate volatility, which increasingly threatens their crops.
While this cooperative CEO’s vision is incredible and certainly within their reach, some important challenges remain:
Making coffee farming attractive to young men: Uganda’s farming population is aging massively, and young men in particular leave for the city or for university, despite having little perspective for employment.
Plots are smaller and smaller: succession regulation leads to the division of already small plots (smallholder plots average around 1 acre), making it more difficult to provide sufficient revenue for each plot’s family.
Overcoming these challenges with sustainable solutions is critical for continued success and my take from discussions and observation is that women in coffee play a big part in the solution. Thanks for reading!