In 2017 while in Uganda helping build concrete water tanks, I tacked on a trip to the Rwenzori mountain range to visit my friend Gerald Mbabazi who has set up a coffee processing company. The following is the condensed version of one of the greatest stories that I have heard:
Around 40 years ago, 10 year old Hamlet Mbabazi was kicked out of school because his parents couldn’t afford the fees for his tuition. He began the week long walk back from Mbarara to his family home in Kanungu. This started him on a journey to lift his district up out of poverty. Kanungu is a remote district in West Uganda. It borders Congo and the Bwindi inpenatrable forest. This is a rain forest home to half the worlds population of Silverback Gorillas. Hamlet got to work and funded himself through the rest of his education, winning a scholarship to Cambridge University where he completed a Masters in Business and Theology. He returned from his studies abroad and set his mind to how he could help his district in the best way possible.
The first problem/opportunity he saw was how expensive education was. Around USD$350 per term per student (for perspective, average day wage for a tradesman in Uganda is currently about USD$7). Hamlet came up with a model where students paid USD$25 per term, or the equivalent in maize, corn, bananas or whatever they grew. Over the years this has grown into 2 primary schools, a high school and now a University offering 4 nationally recognised vocational courses. Effecting positive community transformation from the ground up.
He has also pioneered a water reservoir and other key infrastructure projects for his area. As a result he is a trusted, respected member of the Kanungu community who is actually making a difference. His son Gerald is now ‘standing on his dads shoulders.’ He too has caught the community transformation vision that his dad carries. His family is in connection, and trusted by over 1800 coffee farmers. Most of which have had children benefit from the schools that Hamlet established.
Hamlet values education as incredible way to effect change in someone life. He sent Gerald to America to study business. While Gerald was there, he asked in most coffee shops, why don’t you use Ugandan coffee? I don’t see it anywhere? No one really gave him a good answer until he happened to speak to the owner of a reasonably sized coffee roaster. The reason he was given was that Ugandan coffee isn’t known for good quality. It doesn’t have a strong brand name internationally and it is in less demand. Gerald knew personally that Ugandan coffee could compete on taste, he had grown up around it his whole life, and quality was down to care and techniques, so he started doing all he could, to learn how to grow the BEST coffee, and returned to Kanungu with a mission. Ready to put his business studies towards a coffee processing plant. He called it Gorilla Summit Coffee, named after the Gorillas who live nearby.
Coffee is a commodity and price is determined by quality.
Gerald’s vision is to educate the coffee growers in methods to help them grow better quality coffee, then he can afford to pay them better for what they are producing. This completely changes their reality for the positive. This means upfront payment of sometimes double what others will pay, provided they are producing the quality that he needs in order to get a top price on the international market. He then takes the freshly picked coffee cherry and processes it into green coffee ready to be roasted. This has grown to working with over 1800 small plot coffee growers in his region. Above and beyond this Gerald and his team at Gorilla Summit coffee have a mission: To use their coffee business to transform their community.
They are actively involved in initiatives such as:
In Kanungu, almost all coffee farmers homes are without power. Most children are expected to help tend the crops when they get home from school, usually until it gets dark. This creates a problem. Once it gets dark, if the children want to study and do homework the parents either use a kerosene lamp with horrible fumes, or they are unable to study at all. We see education as incredibly important for lifting a region out of poverty. These solar panels and lights in coffee farmers houses create an opportunity for healthier homes as well as time in which children can study and get ahead.
Western Ugandan has very high infant/mother mortality rates. Gorilla Summit, who we buy our coffee from, are involved with setting up maternity clinics. They care for the mothers for the last month of their pregnancy, the birth and then getting sorting with their new born. This has a cost of $150 per mother/child.
Schools are key to lifting an area out of poverty. The cost of schooling is the biggest inhibiting factor for these coffee farmers. When students study with no fear of running out of school fees, they perform better.
When people start to afford their own Mosquito nets, lives instantly change. These practical initiatives raise the quality (and length) of life for over 1800 coffee growers and their families. They actively work with these growers in sustainable methods that result in better yields and higher quality coffee. This has resulted in Gorilla Summit coffee getting cupping scores well into the specialty coffee range (85 and over). This is really adding value.
Quality means premium prices can be paid and families incomes can sometimes double. This is where it fits perfectly with our company Mt Atkinson Coffee Roasters. Our vision is that everything we do, we transform lives. This includes a great tasting, high quality coffee that is sourced from people that have the same goal. On that 2017 trip I brought back to NZ, 40kg of Gerald’s top quality coffee which I hand picked, processed and bagged up (with my wife Emily, 2 year old and 3 year old helping). We roasted, cupped and graded this coffee to judge the quality. We loved what we tasted! Then started brainstorming on how we could partner with Gorilla Summit Coffee to provide our customers with great tasting, direct trade coffee.
Knowing first hand that this coffee will be transforming peoples lives for the positive. And we have done it! It took a year of ringing every shipping company I could find. The answer was always ‘too hard’ ‘too dodgy’ ‘Sorry we don’t touch anything out of East Africa’ Until, while covering breaks making coffee at The Tannery café, I met Rachel Madden from First Global Logistics. I told her what I wanted to do and by the end of the day she emailed to say that is possible. By the end of the week they had a quote, and 4 months later we landed our first container of Direct Trade West Ugandan coffee.
8 years earlier, after my first trip to Uganda, I returned wanting to use my coffee business to help the Ugandan coffee growers. Now today is a dream turned into reality.
The coffee is tasty. Incredibly unique, with tasting notes of: Malt Biscuit, Mandarin and Walnut.
It is in our Piha and Huia espresso blends and served in all cafes that we supply. If I am at home, I make it as a single origin with an aeropress.
As a team here at Mt Atkinson, not only do want to supply you good coffee, we want to make sure that it is effecting change right through to the farmers that grow it. When you buy a coffee, it changes your day. When you buy a Mt Atkinson Coffee it changes their day as well.
Change your life, change theirs too.