Coffee farmer Robert Kabushenga in Uganda’s Wakiso district is among the coffee producers who are upset about the country’s decision last month to withdraw from the International Coffee Organization, or ICO.
Uganda says tariffs and other barriers restricting its coffee exports triggered the decision to withdraw from a two-year extension of ICO’s 2007 international coffee agreement.
But Kabushenga describes the decision as reckless and illegal, telling VOA it will harm Uganda coffee farmers.
“How does that affect the farmer? It means that the coffee buyer who has been buying can only buy the coffee he can sell because there he is sure he has a contract,” Kabushenga said. “He’s not sure he can take it to warehouses in the International Commodities Exchange. And because of that, we could quite easily end up with surplus crop here because there’s no buyer.”
But the National Union of Coffee Agribusiness (NUCAFE), which includes some 1,500 coffee farmers, supports the government’s decision to withdraw.
Executive director Joseph Nkandu says farmers now have the opportunity to take ownership of their product and to invest and upgrade their coffee.
“The farmer has been getting far less than five percent of the retail value,” Nkandu said. “Where does the 95% go? And the only way for this farmer to enhance the value that he’s getting from this coffee value chain is to upgrade.”
Uganda’s withdrawal does not mean an end to exporting coffee, according to the managing director of Uganda’s Coffee Development Authority. Emmanuel Iyamulemye says Uganda small and medium-sized enterprises can now focus on promoting their coffee in other markets.
“We are looking at specialty markets,” Iyamulmye said. “We have our young youth, SME’s, which are looking at entering big markets like the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and of course, the Scandinavian countries and Europe.”
ICO officials say the organization has tried to resolve Uganda’s complaints but has not received a response, adding that the reasons for the withdrawal were not strong or related to the agreement.
Speaking to VOA via Zoom, ICO operations head Gerardo Patacconi says the organization is looking at the integration of the private sector and a public-private task force in a new draft coffee agreement with Uganda.
“This is a new opportunity,” Patacconi said. “And this opportunity, to me, is unique and I guess that’s why it’s supported by donors, it’s supported by the industry. So, Uganda is a leading producer of coffee. It’s so sad it doesn’t see that as an opportunity. And whatever concerns should be discussed within. This is a coffee diplomacy.”
Uganda is currently Africa’s leading exporter of Robusta coffee, exporting 6.1 million bags annually.