On March31, 2018 I and other coffee farmers travelled to Buzami Village, Bunjakko Island in Buwama Sub-county, Mpigi District to learn about a new method of increasing coffee production and output.
As you approach the one–acre coffee demonstration farm set up by Joseph Nkandu, a prominent farmer and Executive Director at National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises (Nucafe), you’re welcomed by soothing breeze and beautiful sounds from Lake Victoria.
But what is more fascinating is the coffee itself; the coffee trees look too squeezed so much that an ordinary farmer would imagine that the person who planted it doesn’t know what he was doing.
However, as Nkandu started the training, his enthusiastic guests begun to appreciate why they should adopt the new coffee planting method he copied from Brazil, the world’s leading coffee producer, at 55 million 60-kg bags annually.
During his visit to the South American country a few years ago, Nkandu realized that they had more coffee trees in an acre than Uganda. He replicated this method at his farm and is already earning handsomely.
Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) has always advised farmers to plant 450 trees of Robusta coffee in an acre at the spacing of three metres by three metres.
However, Nkandu says the Brazilian spacing is the way to go because it maximizes land and labour. Under this new method, coffee trees are planted at spacing of one metre apart and the rows are three meters apart, implying that a farmer can have 1,300 Robusta coffee trees in an acre.
He advises that holes 2X2 feet (deep and width) are dug a month earlier before planting. He adds that a farmer should apply a full basin of manure (this can be cow dung, poultry droppings mixed with soil or composite manure) per hole before planting the seedlings.
Planting should be carried out at the onset of rains. He says after planting he applies 20 grams of Single Super Phosphate around the plant to boost the rooting system.
“You can have three acres of traditional spacing in one acre using the Brazilian model,” Nkandu said, adding: “Population is increasing but land remains fixed. We have many smallholder farmers which call for land maximization to increase productivity.”
He added that labour used on the 450 coffee trees of traditional spacing is the same labour required for 1,300 coffee trees under the Brazilian model.
Nkandu’s demonstration farm on the shores of Lake Victoria is slightly over two years old.
He revealed that he only plants clonal Robusta coffee against Robusta Elite that is being supplied to farmers by the government under UCDA in collaboration with National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) and Operation Wealth Creation (OWC).
The word clonal means that the coffee plants have been multiplied asexually from a single parent plant or clone.
Unlike Robusta Elite seedlings that can be bought at Shs300, clonal Robusta seedlings go for an average of Shs1, 500.
He says clonal coffee is fast maturing, high yielding and resistant to diseases compared to Robusta Elite. At 10 months, clonal Robusta coffee starts flowering, implying that by one and half years, a farmer would start earning from his coffee plantation.
“With best agronomic practices, you can’t go wrong with coffee,” he said, assuring the group of farmers why coffee farming is worth it.
He adds that after three months, coffee should be bent towards East-West so as to develop more branches. A farmer is advised to leave 3-4 branches per tree. These branches help in increasing production and output.
Soil Testing Important
Nkandu says he carried out soil testing to help him ascertain nutrient composition, hence establish missing soil requirements.
He encourages farmers to do the same as this will increase their yields.
“If you realize there is lower soil PH, you can raise it,” he says, adding that coffee farming is a science throughout the value chain.”
Soil testing can be done at Makerere University.
Because of poor soils at his farm, Nkandu said that after five months of planting, he applies nitrogen rich nutrients while managing weeds very well as well as pests and diseases.
After harvesting, it’s advisable to take another soil nutrient analysis.
Water is very important for coffee farmers to earn big.
During the dry spell, Nkandu pumps water from Lake Victoria into the coffee trees using a ‘rain gun’.
Irrigation makes sure that the coffee trees have sufficient water all the time, hence high yields. He noted that coffee needs a lot of water during the flowering stage.
He reveals that after 7/8 years, it’s advisable to stamp/cut the trees. Stamping is done at about 45 degrees using a saw so as to avoid the stems rotting. Stamping is done to allow new development of branches and maintain higher yields as older trees tend to experience low yields.
He advises farmers to leave at least one branch for cash flow purposes.
Nkandu revealed that he was able to get 2.2kgs of graded coffee in green form in his first harvest. He however, says that in the coming years, he’s optimistic he will get as high as three tons of graded coffee in an acre. The average price of a kilogram of quality graded coffee is about US$1.7 (about Shs6, 000).
Deus Nuwagaba, the Deputy Executive Director, Operations Management at NUCAFE added that without exaggerating figures, a farmer can earn as high as Shs23.4m annually from an acre of coffee with the modern way of spacing.
He says it is very possible to get 1.5kgs of green graded coffee per tree. Considering the 1,300 trees in an acre, a farmer will be able to get 1,950 kgs. Taking an average price of Shs6, 000, a farmer is able to earn Shs11.7m in a single season.
He reveals that there are two seasons in a coffee calendar year, implying that a farmer is able to earn a gross profit of Shs23.4m annually.
Advice to farmers
Nkandu advises farmers not to sell their coffee through middlemen. He says NUCAFE promotes the farmer-ownership model whereby a farmer owns the coffee throughout the coffee value chain.
“Don’t sell coffee when it’s on trees; you don’t know what you’re selling,” he says, adding: “A farmer should at least lose ownership at the graded coffee.”
He also advises farmers to train their workers on the best agronomic practices not only to increase productivity, but also improve on the quality of Uganda’s coffee.
Nkandu’s demonstration farm is surrounded by trees which he says is good for biodiversity.
“As a farmer, you need bees. I don’t have shade trees so the trees in the boundary are very important for the farm survival,” he says.
Asked about the availability of the market in future considering the fact that government is looking at producing 20m-60kg bags of coffee by 2025, in addition to mega plans by other countries to up production, Nkandu, said he has been involved in the coffee business for a long time and he sees the market of quality coffee guaranteed.
Currently, Uganda produces about four million 60-kilogramme-bags of coffee annually while Brazil which leads the world produces between 55 and 60 sixty-kilogramme-bags annually.
Nkandu says if Uganda increases the coffee tree numbers per acre from 450 to 1,300 in addition to using fertilizers, coffee production and output would jump.
Coffee is Uganda’s third foreign exchange earner after tourism and remittances.
Going forward, players like Nkandu are hopeful that the crop will reclaim its number one spot of bringing in foreign exchange once farmers are sensitized about the Brazilian method of farming, in addition to using irrigation farming in times of limited rains.