Investing in Quality: Owemba…something different coming out of Western Uganda

Originally Posted by our partner association, Joint Marketing Initiative.

Bukonzo Joint Cooperative (BJC) was founded as a micro-finance organization. After successfully bankrolling the economic activities of their farmer-members, they began collectively marketing their coffee in 2005. Western Uganda historically turns out low-grade, non-tracable, commercial coffee produced by farmers who often don’t know that it is a beverage, let alone a gourmet beverage. With ideal coffee-growing conditions and the UCDA promoting high-quality Kenyan varieties (SL14 and SL28), Western Uganda is situated to turn out delicious, fine-cupping, high-dollar, specialty Arabicas. The key to success is investing in production methods from seed to ship. The challenge: in a region where people strive to meet their basic daily needs, it is often difficult to focus attention on long-term investments. In Western Uganda, a coffee cooperative with roots in Micro-Finace is perfectly poised to be a leader in quality because they already understand investment. And that is exactly what Bukonzo Joint is doing — investing in coffee quality.

Bukonzo Joint is headquartered at 1255 m above sea level (4100 ft) in Kyarumba [cha-room-ba], near Kasese in Western Uganda.


The BJC store & staff headquarters is the largest building at the bottom right-hand side

The coffee grows in the surrounding foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains between 1400 and 2200 m above sea level (4500 – 7000 ft) – ideal growing conditions for specialty coffee.

But their blessing is also their curse; the terrain in the Rwenzori Mountains is tough. Paineto was born and raised in these foothills, but they still amazed him, “I can never believe how many people are up here. From Kyarumba they just look like hills and you would never think people were living up here.”


Farming in the Rwenzori foothills near Kyalhumba

I have had my fair share of rapid elevation loss: Aasgard Pass, The Annapurnas, Engineer Mountain come to mind — but we lost 1,300 vertical feet over 1 kilometer. The striking thing about it was passing farms, farmers, houses, chicken coops, children and schools in such steep terrain. As I was struggling to hold my GPS in one hand, my camera in the other, walk and talk all at the same time, it became clear why motivating farmers to haul 20-50 kilos of coffee cherry to a central processing station in a timely fashion for the sake of specialty coffee was not highly probable.

If you can’t bring the cherry to a central processing station, why not bring the washing station to the cherry? That is the innovative, grass roots thinking which stemmed from BJC farmers and Twin is happy to be supporting. BJC has been installing and promoting micro-washing stations since 2011 alongside Twin, Rabobank and other organizations and with the help of a handful of dedicated buyers.


BJC holding a “Thank You” sign to one of their first buyers

BJC produces organic, fair trade, fully-washed coffee and they call it Owemba. Owemba was derived from a Lukonzo word that means different, special or unique. Rural farmers use Owemba to signify that they are processing their coffee differently from how they have been traditionally.

This is no easy task. A traditional, collectivist culture takes the “hip” out of “hipster” and it is not as easy to “maintain against the grain” or “dare to be different” — things we admire & value in the USA — making the movement towards specialty coffee a bit more challenging. But BJC has committed themselves to changing and improving coffee production one step at a time. They not only promote their own Owemba, but they also encourage others in the region to take coffee production more seriously.

“We cannot do it on our own. The whole region of Western Uganda needs to increase their reputation for quality.” ~ Paineto Baluku

They are joining the UCDA and others in encouraging farmers to pick the cherry when it’s ripe.


Paineto, BJC leader, stops a non-member on her way to the market to tell her about quality coffee and encourage her to start picking only red cherries in order to help the general reputation of Western Ugandan coffee

They teach each micro-station how to select and float cherries. They encourage farmers to sell rejected cherries on the more forgiving local markets and to improve picking & farm maintenance to minimize future rejects from the cooperative’s Specialty production. Float

Each micro-station is outfitted with a small, motorized pulper


Pulper and shed at Buthale Washing Station

and a state-of-the-art drying shed.


Drying Shed at Buthale Washing Station

Each station registers about 40 – 100 farmer-members and the well-trained station managers oversee the quality of production. They use this model because plot sizes are often too small to justify having a pulper for each farmer and because more centralized oversight keeps the coffee more uniformly processed.

If you are a coffee professional who specializes in production, you might be wondering if micro-washing stations are truly that innovative. In a region where traditional coffee-processing looks more like a chicken run than the production of a gourmet beverage, micro-washing stations are revolutionary.


The traditional and typical coffee production method in Western Uganda – Drugar (Dried Uganda Arabica)

But the biggest difference between BJC coffee and run-of-the-mill Western Uganda Arabica is not equipment, it’s education, education, eduction. Bukonzo Joint is investing in the capacity of each man and woman who handles their coffee. As they continue to grow, they organize technical exchanges between their station managers. BJC leaders spend time in the field sharing information and cupping scores with their farmer members. They educate their community about coffee quality and improved, organic farming techniques. They also work hard to promote a coffee-drinking culture in and around Kyalhumba.


Cupping coffee with BJC staff and farmers

Owemba is something different coming out of Western Uganda.