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Great Lakes Coffee Brings Farmer Profitability Trials to Life in Uganda: Part 2

Dec. 17, 2018

Through our Global Coffee Monitoring Program, WCR is conducting trials around the world—including in Uganda—to help coffee farmers find a path to profitability.
Kaesse Uganda

An agronomist from Great Lakes Coffee collects soil samples, while WCR Agronomist Maureen Namugalu collects some socio-economic data from the farmer

If you missed Part 1 of our series on the GCMP through the experience of Great Lakes and Mr. Baluku, check it out here. Today, the focus shifts to the land. We look at some of the key steps of bringing a WCR on-farm technology trial to life, including selecting improved varieties and agronomy treatments.

On November 5, 2018, Mr. Raphael Baluku and agronomists from Great Lakes Coffee Uganda gathered to watch as workers carefully placing baby coffee trees into 156 holes dug in the earth.

The bustling work happening on this small corner of Mr. Baluku’s small coffee farm in western Uganda was part of something much bigger. As one of an expected 1,100 farmer field trials being installed around the world by World Coffee Research, Mr. Baluku’s plot of land is part of a massive global effort to understand—and improve—the profitability of coffee farmers. The effort, called the Global Coffee Monitoring Program (GCMP), relies on Great Lakes Coffee and dozens of coffee exporters and supply chain partners, working together with WCR to implement the trials. Mr. Baluku’s plot is one of 10 trials that Great Lakes Coffee is assisting WCR to conduct in Uganda.

Step 4: Collecting socioeconomic data

Each trial relies on a series of interlinking relationships to come off. Before baby plants were placed in the ground, socioeconomic data about Mr. Baluku and his farm were collected by Great Lakes Partner Agronomist Muthaghanzwa Sanairi. Each partnering agronomist receives extensive training from WCR’s in-country lead agronomist, Maureen Namugalu, on how to collect the necessary data. The initial survey covers everything from climate and weather (a small sensor is installed onsite), soil analysis, and household and farm data. Acquiring this information before the trial begins helps paint a clearer picture of the variables that influence the success of Mr. Baluku’s coffee plot.

Step 5: Selecting varieties and agronomy treatments

The Global Coffee Monitoring Program pulls on two “levers” to study where the biggest gains in the profitability of coffee farming might come from—using better varieties and using better farming practices. Each farmer field trial features two improved varieties and agronomy treatments in the farmer’s field; these are tested against the farmer’s existing variety and practices, which serve as controls. In total, each trial site is a grid with nine sections—each of the three varieties paired with each of the three agronomy treatments. The goal for Mr. Balaku’s farm is to determine which of the nine sections generates the most coffee, the best coffee, and—most important of all—the highest profits. 


Hired workers help planting one of the first GCMP plots in Uganda

In order to figure out which varieties to include in the trials in Uganda, WCR teamed with local coffee researchers and representatives from Great Lakes Coffee and other supply chain partners at a daylong workshop. Many factors are considered when selecting the varieties that go into a trial. These include: the varieties available in a country or region, the elevation, and partner and farmer preferences in terms of variety characteristics, such as the potential yield, disease resistance and cup quality. Since Mr. Baluku was already growing SL14 on farm, a high-yielding tall plant common in Uganda on his farm, it was chosen as the control variety. The other varieties selected were SL28, a variety known for its high cup quality potential, and Batian, a new variety from Kenya that is supposed to combine high yields, tolerance to coffee leaf rust, resistance to coffee berry disease, and good cup quality. As with all GCMP trials, the seeds and seedlings were tested for genetic purity and plant health.

To determine which agronomy treatments to use at Mr. Baluku’s farm, Ms. Namugalu and Mr. Sanairi work closely with the farmer and Great Lakes Coffee Agribusiness Manager Koen Sneyers. They selected options that will bring a variety of new approaches and benefits to Mr. Baluku’s farm. For example, one treatment adds Albizia Coriaria trees for permanent shade (compared to avocado and mango trees in the control plot, which attract black twig borer, a pest that is harmful to coffee). In addition, both improved treatments include cow manure for fertilizer (compared to no added fertilizer in the control treatment).

GCMP in action at Flor Amarilla, WCR's El Salvadorian Research Farm

The trials in farmers’ fields are organized into grids like this one at Flor Amarilla, WCR’s research farm in El Salvador. The grids align with the three different varieties and three different packages of agricultural practices. (Photo credit: Roberto Villalta)

Steps 6 and 7: Establishing and maintaining the plots

With the varieties and agronomy treatments chosen, the agronomists work with Mr. Baluku to install the trial according to the established design. First, Mr. Baluku hired local workers to clear the land for the trial and to plant the coffee seedlings in neat rows. With the plot now installed, Mr. Baluku has assumed the responsibility of maintaining it and keeping records of the tasks he does in the trial. The Great Lakes agronomist, Mr. Sanairi, visits the farm about twice a month to monitor the trial, address any challenges Mr. Baluku has, and to make sure the data is recorded correctly.  

The trees on Mr. Baluku’s farm are just a few inches tall today. But in just a few years they will be towering over his head. By November 2021, the green trees will be festooned with red coffee cherries—the first fruit. When that happy day arrives, Mr. Sanairi will oversee the collection and weighing of the cherries for one of the most important early measurements of the trial—which combination of variety and agronomic treatment produced the most fruit. Another key question—which combination produced the best tasting coffee—will be answered by taking a small sample from each of the nine plots to process, roast, and brew (ensuring samples are kept separate and traceable).

In the first two parts of this series, we’ve covered most of the steps that WCR follows with our partners and farmers to bring the GCMP program to life. In the final part, coming next week, we’ll look at how we collect data and share knowledge in the trials, as well as how prospective partners can become part of the GCMP!

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