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Great Lakes Coffee Brings Farmer Profitability Trials to Life in Uganda

Update to Global Coffee Monitoring Program

Dec. 30, 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.

Mr. Baluku is one of the many smallholder farmers who works with Great Lakes Coffee, a green coffee sourcing, milling, and exporting company in Uganda.

Mr. Raphael Baluku has been getting a lot of questions about his coffee trees recently. In November 2018, the 54-year-old farmer—in Maliba subcounty, Kasese District of western Uganda—collaborated with World Coffee Research on the installation of an on-farm technology trial (OFTT) plot at his farm.

Located on a part of Mr. Baluku’s 0.219 ha coffee farm, the OFTT features the farmer's current variety, SL14, and two new varieties—SL28 and Batian—and improved agronomy treatments. Because Mr. Baluku’s farm is near the roadside, his neighbors have taken an immediate interest in the new plants. “It’s an attraction to other neighboring coffee farmers who pass by every day,” Mr. Baluku says. “They have been asking me a lot of questions.”

Mr. Baluku is one of the many smallholder farmers who works with Great Lakes Coffee, a green coffee sourcing, milling, and exporting company in Uganda. As a valued partner of World Coffee Research, Great Lakes is helping to lead the installation of OFTTs in Uganda—one of 32 countries around the world in which the farmer field trials are being installed through the  Global Coffee Monitoring Program (GCMP).

One of the objectives of the trials is to allow farmers to feel the impact of investing in new technologies such as improved varieties and agricultural practices. When the harvest arrives, the farmer gets a better understanding of which varieties and practices provide the highest profit, helping them see the value in pursuing these practices and driving an increased supply of high-quality coffee going forward. In 2019, WCR will work with over 35 coffee industry partners, the USDA, USAID, and producing-country coffee institutions to oversee what will eventually be a global network of over 1100 farmer field trials in 20 countries—including Uganda.

The aggregated data from these trials will allow farmers, for the first time, to receive customized recommendations on variety selection and agronomic approach that will result in the greatest profit for their particular set of conditions—no more one-size-fits-all recommendations.

For anyone investing in renovating coffee farmers, whether it be the farmer herself, a coffee exporter, or a government, this new profit data will lower some of the substantial risk typically entailed by planting new coffee trees that won’t produce fruit for 3-4 years.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series in which we’ll explore how a Global Coffee Monitoring Program trial comes together by focusing on Great Lakes Coffee’s work with Mr. Baluku.

Step 1: Finding a partner

Historically, a significant barrier to reaping the benefits of agricultural research is getting the results of the research into the hands of those who need it most—farmers.  The Global Coffee Monitoring Program addresses this challenge in the design of the trial itself, which are placed in farmer fields. 

To make each trial a reality, WCR must identify partners who are committed to implementing the trials (each lasts five years) and who understand the risks, benefits, costs, and expected outcomes. Costs will vary from region to region, but WCR typically funds 50 percent of a trial, with the partner covering the other half, often by providing their staff to work with participating farmers. The benefit for the partner is clear, as they can witness the effects of improved varieties and agricultural practices, and can expose the farmers in their supply chains to these features and their link to productivity.

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Loading coffee seedlings for planting at Kawacom- ECOM nursery in Kasese, Uganda

In Uganda, WCR’s Uganda Country Agronomist Maureen Namugalu identified Great Lakes Coffee as an ideal partner for the trials, recognizing that, like WCR, Great Lakes is dedicated to improving coffee yields and profits for farmers. The family-owned company sources 100 percent traceable coffee, and its team of 30 agronomists provides farmers with a training curriculum to sustainably produce high-quality coffee. Because of this direct farmer connection, Great Lakes Coffee was an ideal partner to bring OFTT  trials to Uganda. Great Lakes agreed to take on 10 total trial sites, launching six in 2018 (including Mr. Baluku’s) and planning four more for 2019.

GLC Agronomist

Muthaghanzwa Sanairi is the agronomist in charge of assisting with trials in Maliba district, where Mr. Baluku resides.

Steps 2 and 3: Establishing leadership and selecting farmers 

The Global Coffee Monitoring Program is managed by World Coffee Research under the guidance of a global director, Danielle Knueppel, and a team of regional managers.  Ms. Namugalu, the Country Agronomist, coordinates all in-country GCMP activity in Uganda for World Coffee Research. But she doesn’t do the work alone. On the contrary, Namugalu relies heavily on partnering agronomists from Great Lakes Coffee to implement the trials in Uganda. One of those agronomists is Muthaghanzwa Sanairi, who is in charge of assisting with trials in Maliba district, where Mr. Baluku resides.

The first step is to select farmers to participate in the trials. One of the central outcomes of the global trial network is the production of a dataset that will guide recommendations for a diverse range of farmers around the globe, so the farmers selected for a country must represent the diversity of that country's coffee sector. Diversity includes everything from farmer type, farm size, ecogeography (e.g., a range of altitude of soil types), and growing system (such as shade versus full-sun conditions). Partners provide insight into the country’s farming system diversity, and lead the selection of farmers that represent that diversity.

Then, the real work begins. Partnering agronomists receive training from Namugalu to lead the farmers in each trial. Great Lakes agronomist Muthaghanzwa Sanairi is in charge of helping the farmers in Maliba subcounty establish the trial—clearing the land, receiving baby trees, and planting them according to the trial’s gridded design.  As the trial proceeds, he will collaborate with Mr. Baluku and other farmers to collect data from their respective trials in the area.

Kaesse Uganda

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

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).

Neighbors driving past the neat rows of baby coffee trees on Raphel Baluku’s farm in Western Uganda, are taking notice and asking questions. The trees are part of a field trial that connects Mr. Baluku to an unprecedented global effort to improve profitability for coffee farmers.

Soon enough both Mr. Baluku and his neighbors will have a chance to see what knowledge is gleaned from the trials and how they can apply it to their own farms. One of the most important commitments that farmer-participants make when they join the Global Coffee Monitoring Program (GCMP) is hosting Farmer Field Days to bring together fellow farmers to learn from the trials.

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A neatly laid out Global Coffee Monitoring Program plot from Rwanda, planted in March.

Step 8: Sharing knowledge through farmer field days

Research isn’t especially valuable if it isn’t shared. An essential part of the GCMP is ensuring that data acquired from each trial is shared with participating farmers and partners inside and outside of the trial. Farmer field days are organized in years 2-5 of each trial to share access to the knowledge being generated. For Mr. Baluku, the first of these trainings will happen in 2019.

Using data from the farmers’ own field, key information such as weather data, plant growth, yield, and the costs of production versus income is shared and discussed.  At these events, farmers have the chance to examine which combination of variety and agronomy practices provides the most benefit.  All of this information will help farmers locally make more informed decisions about approaches to take in their farms.  Mr. Baluku says he is already looking forward to these events. “This will be a way of extending knowledge to other farmers who would wish to host these trials but were not able to,” he says.

Step 9:  Using findings to support coffee supply

The data from a single site are powerful enough for the farmer, his neighbor, and the supply chain partners involved in purchasing coffee from the region. But aggregate that impact over the network’s hundreds of trials in more than 30 countries and you have something totally unprecedented in the coffee sector. 

Partners in the trial, like Great Lakes have access to data from the sites they support, which is among the biggest benefits of being a GCMP partner. Partners receive brief, annual OFTT reports starting in year two, prepared by WCR for each OFTT site in their supply chain.  These reports contain information on variety performance and factors influencing production, including soil characteristics, annual weather data, vegetative growth, disease prevalence, and bean and cup quality. In total, this provides partners with a wealth of information they can use to invest in and strengthen their supply chains.

A path to profitability

With the help of key partners, diligent agronomists, and dedicated farmers, the GCMP is helping to transform coffee farms into climate-smart, productive, and profitable enterprises—in Uganda and in other coffee-producing countries around the world. Though Mr. Raphael Baluku is still in the first year of the trial, he says he already sees clear evidence that he is becoming a more skilled, and likely more profitable, farmer. “I am already seeing an improved future of coffee—I have new varieties at my farm and have learned other management practices,” Mr. Baluku says. “I have learned a lot from the WCR agronomist and Great Lakes staff. Doing all this hands-on work at my farm makes me feel confident that my coffee will be better in the future.”

Great Lakes Coffee Agribusiness Manager Koen Sneyers, who was instrumental in bringing the partnership with WCR to fruition, said of the effort, “We feel responsible to help the coffee farmers we work with, and getting them out of poverty is the final objective. This program helps all of us build knowledge and think more clearly.”

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Maureen Namugalu (WCR Agronomist) helping plant the OFTT's earlier this autumn.

Partnering on the program 

Great Lakes Uganda has been a key partner in bringing the Global Coffee Monitoring Program trials to life in Uganda, at Mr. Baluku’s farm and beyond. These trials are playing an important role in exposing farmers to new technologies and helping them understand how they can follow a path to profitability and long-term sustainability.

WCR continues to work with multiple partners—including roasting companies, exporters, cooperatives, host country coffee institutions, and coffee farmers—to extend the GCMP network across the coffee production globe, as we install hundreds of trial plots in nearly three dozen coffee-producing countries.

WCR aims to have five to six different supply chain partners in each country where the trials operate. Partners which have agronomy staff on the ground agree to sponsor a minimum of five technology trials, with cash and in-kind contributions to cover the trial’s activities and costs in collaboration with WCR.

Interested in finding out more information about partnering on trials? Email WCR Partnership Director Greg Meenahan at