In Bugisu, a southeastern sub-region of Uganda, growers cultivate an unusual variety of arabica coffee called Nyasaland on the slopes of Mount Elgon. The variety has a long history.
Originally cultivated in western Ethiopia (in the Geisha area), it then arrived in the former British protectorate that is now Malawi (then known as Nyasaland), before being introduced to Uganda by British colonialists in the early 20th century, where it adapted perfectly to the agroforestry being practiced on the slopes of Mount Elgon.
Presidium Nyasaland coffee is grown at altitudes between 1,260 and 1,550 meters, intercropped with bananas, manioc, pumpkins, beans, other coffee varieties such as Kilimanjaro (also arabica), fruit trees and ginger (an effective natural antiparasitic). The coffee is fertilized with animal manure. Large African shade trees help stop water evaporating from the ground and feed the soil with their leaves as part of a perfectly agroecological system.
The Nyasaland coffee variety continues to survive despite competition from high-yielding hybrid varieties, like the SLs (Scott Laboratories) and Ruiru 11, which are distributed for free. The Nyasaland beans are slightly smaller than those of the hybrid varieties, but their aroma is more intense and floral, sometimes with almond notes. The plants are also more resistant to disease.
The Presidium producers still proudly preserve some very rare, decades-old plants, cultivated since the 1940s. During the years of Idi Amin’s dictatorship (1971-1979), the economy in the Mount Elgon area and Uganda in general collapsed. Activities like coffee cultivation were abolished and the farmers were forced to destroy many of the Nyasaland trees to make way for other crops. But thanks to a few stubborn farmers, these historic plants are still fruiting today. When they flower, between January and February, they scent the air with a jasmine-like fragrance.
Slow Food Uganda has been regularly visiting the coffee growers in the Mount Elgon area, already home to a community food garden, since 2015. In recent years, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has brought agronomists, botanists and coffee roasters to the coffee-growing communities, in order to better identify the variety’s characteristics and learn more about the cultivation and processing methods.
The Presidium, launched in February 2018 during the annual Slow Food Uganda Coffee Festival, involves 40 producers organized in the Miale-Tubana Mixed Farmers’ Cooperative Group (Miale Tubana means “the Miale villagers come together” in the Luganda language). The project’s objectives are to safeguard and add value to the Nyasaland variety; to improve the quality of the coffee by working on the harvesting, selection, pulp removal, sun-drying and storage phases; and to promote it on the local market with awareness-raising events.
Miale village (Mooni, Bumboi, Mutoto, and Muyanda local administrations), Mbale District, Eastern region
40 producers united in the Miale-Tubana Mixed Farmers’ Cooperative Group