How Coffee Farming is Saving Mountain Gorillas in Uganda

By  Posted on 17 Nov 2017

Over the years gorillas have continued to face the risk of habitat loss and poaching. Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, founder of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, is at the forefront to ensure that these world’s largest and highly charismatic primates remain protected. She has collaborated with the coffee farmers in the dense rain-forests stretching across the southwest border of Uganda where an estimated half of the 880 mountain gorillas live today.

It is almost impossible for one to use “coffee” and “gorilla” in the same sentence. We meet Dr. Gladys Kalema – Zikusoka who is bringing these two unrelated words together to impact lives. Founded in October 2015, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a social enterprise that improves the lives of farmers living around national parks by training them on how to grow and process good quality coffee, while paying them premium prices to improve their livelihoods. This stops the farmers from poaching and collecting firewood from the forest to make ends meet. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka shared with us that she gained the confidence to start Gorilla Conservation Coffee after she received training through a programme known as Impact Investment for Conservation that was ran by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Switzerland. She received a loan from WWF CH which helped her begin the business. Gorilla Conservation Coffee was set up to also create sustainable financing for conservation to support conservation efforts on the ground in a holistic way without entirely depending on grants.

Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka (centre) with some of the coffee farmers

Working with gorillas is not a new thing to Dr. Gladys Kalema. She has worked with them for 20 years. She started working with them while she was still a student and later when she became the first veterinary doctor in Uganda Wildlife Authority. During one of her visits to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, she realised that gorillas were falling sick and eventually dying. The gorilla’s health deterioration was mainly caused by the communities living adjacent to the forest. The gorillas would go into people’s gardens to feed on banana stems and in the process, accidentally touch scarecrows with dirty clothing in the gardens meant to drive away wild animals and birds. This experience steered Dr. Gladys Kalema to establish an NGO known as Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). The NGO was meant to reduce disease spread between the community and the gorillas. While working on improving the health of the community and gorillas, it dawned on Dr. Gladys Kalema that the community was unhealthy because they were poor. They didn’t receive sustainable income from the coffee they sold leading them to engage in alternative and illegal forms of income generation; poaching and cutting trees for firewood. The concept of Gorilla Conservation Coffee was at this point birthed to provide an alternative way of improving the community’s livelihood while saving the gorillas.

“Gorilla Conservation Coffee is the only Ugandan coffee expressly created to help conserve the mountain gorillas by directly supporting farmers living around the gorillas’ habitat.”

The main market for Gorilla Conservation Coffee is comprised of; tourists, lodges, expatriates in Uganda, people abroad who want to give back, people interested in gorilla conservation, duty-free shops where people can buy souvenirs and gift shops in Uganda. Part of the donation from every branded coffee bag sold, goes to Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) which runs 3 programmes; wildlife health and conservation, community health and alternative livelihoods.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee stands out from other enterprises within its industry because it works with farmers right at the heart of the gorillas’ habitat. This means that it is involved in the direct conservation efforts on the ground. Another unique fact about Gorilla Conservation Coffee is that aside from supporting farmers with premium prices for good coffee, part of the donation received from coffee bags sold also goes directly into supporting the health and conservation efforts of CTPH at Bwindi. Gorilla Conservation Coffee also stands out as a double impact social enterprise, making impact both in the social and environmental sectors. Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s first coffee brand name, Kanyonyi, has a unique origin. It is named after the lead silverback of the Mubare gorilla group, the first group to he habituated for tourism in Uganda, and this has helped the customers have a personal connection with the brand.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s first coffee brand, Kanyonyi

In its journey towards growth, Gorilla Conservation Coffee has experienced some exciting and memorable moments. For Dr. Gladys Kalema, creating a brand that could pass the intended message to people and stocking their coffee in over 30 outlets in Uganda continues to be a great achievement. Gorilla Conservation Coffee also took part in a crowdfunding campaign where they sold coffee to over 17 countries around the world. To add onto these great achievements, their coffee was tested and approved as being among the best kind in Uganda. It was tested by a specialist coffee taster in the Ugandan Coffee Development Authority.

With great milestones achieved, there are challenges involved and Gorilla Conservation Coffee has its own fair share of these. The biggest challenge has been selling green coffee at a high price. This is a challenge because their consumers are more willing to buy roasted branded coffee at a high price as compared to the green coffee, which is more available on the market. Furthermore, the earnings the business receives from selling green coffee cannot sustain it. Gorilla Conservation Coffee is therefore making every effort to sell coffee as an end product (roasted branded coffee) since it can attract the segment of customers who are willing to buy at a high price. Selling this coffee at a higher price will help sustain the business. Focusing on sales development and working closely with outlets that sell coffee as an end product will also help overcome this challenge.

The specific industry opportunities being addressed by Gorilla Conservation Coffee are in the coffee and conservation industry. In the coffee industry, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is at the forefront to ensure that Ugandan coffee is internationally recognised as an independent coffee brand. In conservation, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is addressing the issue of providing sustainable financing for conservation. However, one of the key challenges faced in the coffee industry is that internationally, people aren’t fully aware of Ugandan coffee and haven’t embraced it as the good quality coffee it has grown to become. This challenge is making it difficult to effectively penetrate the international markets.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee is making transformative impact on the local and international community alike. To the local community, they gave a loan to their first lead coffee farmer to help him secure enough manpower for his vast coffee farm during the planting season. The farmer experienced double revenue increase in that season. In a bid to also impact the international community Gorilla Conservation Coffee hosts Coffee Safaris where tourists who have come to track mountain gorillas learn about coffee growing. The tourists take part in harvesting cherries, pulping them and then tasting the coffee while listening to a presentation about Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s impact. So far, five Coffee Safaris have been held.

Dr. Gladys Kalema’s advice to entrepreneurs is that they need to be focused on what they are doing despite the discouragements or distractions that arise along the way. Entrepreneurs must be willing to take calculated risks and when launching a product, they need to first test it in the market and listen to criticisms raised by people.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee stocked in one of the outlets in Uganda

In the next three years, Dr. Gladys Kalema and her team hope to engage more than 300 coffee farmers, seeing that they are currently working with only 75 farmers. They hope to sell coffee to more countries on an online platform as well as reach more outlets across Eastern Africa and engage distributors in USA, Europe and Asia. They also intend to engage other countries in conservation where gorillas exist.

How coffee farming is saving mountain gorillas in Uganda

Saving Gorillas ‘One Sip at a Time’

By  Conservation International on 12 September 2018

Gorilla Conservation Coffee and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Gorilla Conservation Coffee with a view of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. (Courtesy of Gorilla Conservation Coffee)

Editor’s note: September 29 marks National Coffee Day in the U.S. Throughout the month of September, Human Nature is highlighting Conservation International’s sustainable coffee work. This post is the second post in the series.

There are only 1,000 mountain gorillas in existence. About half of them call the lush setting of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwestern Uganda home, relatively protected from poachers and encroaching development.

For the past two decades, the gorillas — and the communities that live in the shadow of the park, relying on it for food and livelihoods — have had an unlikely ally: coffee. Human Nature spoke with Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a founding member of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a program that is working to save gorillas “one sip at a time.”

Question: What is Gorilla Conservation Coffee, and how did it come about?

Answer: Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a social enterprise of the non-profit Conservation Through Public Health. Simply put, it pays a premium price for coffee to help the farmers living around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where one of the world’s largest remaining populations of mountain gorillas remains.

But to truly understand the project, we need to go back to 1996.

One of my very first jobs was setting up the veterinary department of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and shortly after entering the job, I had to deal with the very first scabies skin disease outbreak in the mountain gorillas. We learned that scabies was prevalent in the local communities around the park, and ultimately figured out that in order to protect the gorillas, we first needed to improve the health of the communities that interact with the gorillas. The more work we did in the area, the more we recognized how closely linked poverty, human health and conservation were. We wouldn’t be able to protect the gorillas without the support and involvement of the communities, and by protecting the gorillas and their habitat, we could also help locals thrive.

For many people, gorilla tourism would seem like the obvious solution. And while tourism provides sustainable financing for conservation, not everybody can benefit from tourism. Not everyone can be employed by the park or be a porter or work in a lodge. A large number of people end up not benefitting from tourism, so we needed alternative ways to get more sustainable funding for the park while supporting the communities.

In fact, the answer was right in front of us: The park is ideal coffee-growing land, and even as you are tracking gorillas, you are walking through coffee farms. Coffee has a long and rich history in Uganda, and Bwindi park was no exception.

Dr. Gladys and members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative (© Jo-Anne MacArthur)

Q: So coffee was already being grown in the area, but the communities were still struggling with extreme poverty and health issues?

A: When we met with the coffee farmers in 2015, they told us their biggest problem was not having a steady market or steady prices for their coffee. People had abandoned their efforts to grow Arabica (a higher quality bean that traditionally commands higher prices) because they were being paid the same amount of money as for Robusta beans, despite Arabica costing significantly more to grow. Apparently coffee traders were paying as little as possible, regardless of the bean type.

Some of the farmers were also poachers, going into the park to hunt for meat because when they wanted meat, they couldn’t afford to buy it. Some people in the community also collected firewood from the park, contributing to deforestation of the gorilla’s habitat, so we figured out that if we could keep people sustained by coffee farming, then they wouldn’t have to go into the park for other activities.

So our first step was to find these farmers a steady price and a steady market.


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Q: How does Gorilla Conservation Coffee help the coffee farmers?

A: We have a coffee expert recommended by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority who is almost as passionate about coffee as I am about gorillas. He has helped us set the high quality standards for the coffee — really, he convinced us that we shouldn’t buy bad coffee from farmers, we should only buy good coffee. For the farmers, that translated into a specific set of guidelines for growing coffee, from picking the coffee cherries at the right time to choosing when to pulp them — all things that contribute to a superior product. This is helping them improve their coffee quality because they know they have to be consistent if they want us to buy their coffee, and to get a good price for their coffee. It’s also a ripple effect: They’re using sustainable agriculture and getting better yields, so our hope is others will see that and copy them.

As part of this work, we helped the farmers create the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative. They didn’t have a cooperative to bring them together, which was also contributing to them not getting a fair price, because if you are in a group you can negotiate better. Currently the coffee cooperative has 85 farmers and the chairman of the cooperative sits on the board of Gorilla Conservation Coffee. There is a strong tie to conservation and sustainability because the chairman of the coffee cooperative works within the conservation sector, and the messaging to farmers — don’t go into the park to poach, for example — is clear. Plus, we are buying their coffee, so they don’t really have to go into the park to poach.

Lead Arabica coffee farmer for Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Lead Arabica coffee farmer for Gorilla Conservation Coffee in Bwindi, Uganda. (© Jo-Anne MacArthur)

Q: How has the community reacted to Gorilla Conservation Coffee?

A: The community is very excited, and they really feel like we are helping them. One of our biggest buyers is actually two tourism lodges in Bwindi, and they buy more coffee than the private lodges. They even use it in daily consumption and they market it because it’s from their farmers. I think people can clearly see the linkages between gorillas and coffee, and how coffee can be a way to conserve gorillas, not just within the park but within the country at large.

We’ve even started taking tourists on coffee safaris when they come to track gorillas. We team up with coffee farmers who are coexisting with these gorillas, and the tourists really enjoy it because it’s very authentic. The farmer shows them the coffee he has on his farm, the different things he is trying to do. They get to taste the coffee, they get involved in picking it, they get to pulp the coffee. As they drink it, they are getting a presentation about how the work that we are doing is linking the gorilla conservation and the coffee. And they come away feeling really good. Meanwhile, the farmers are getting to meet tourists, which they weren’t before. So, they are getting more into conservation and realizing the importance of conservation to tourism and their livelihoods.

Q: Gorilla Conservation Coffee recently joined the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, an initiative launched by Conservation International and partners to make coffee the world’s first completely sustainable agricultural product. Why?

A: We joined the Challenge in July of this year, as did the Uganda Coffee Development Authority — signaling that the government agency in charge of coffee in Uganda is on board. The Challenge is a network of all the different actors in the coffee supply chain, from growers to traders to merchants. So, joining the Challenge offers us a way to network among sustainable coffee stakeholders and to develop strategic partnerships which will help us achieve our goals. It’s a way to have the right kind of partnerships with those in the sector that share the same values. Ultimately, we want to create a global brand that will always be traceable back to the people that produce it, in a way that will help save gorillas directly, one sip at a time.

Kanyonyi, the gorilla the first coffee blend is named after.

Kanyonyi, the silverback gorilla Gorilla Conservation’s Coffee’s first blend was named after. (Courtesy of Gorilla Conservation Coffee)

Q: Do you drink coffee?

A: Yes, we named the first coffee blend after my favorite gorilla, who unfortunately died in December. That’s the Kanyonyi coffee blend. Then we set up a small café where people can experience what we are doing, learn about gorillas and drink coffee. We have set up Uganda’s first conservation café, and we have branded it. In this café, we are learning how to drink more coffee. On top of the normal lattes and macchiatos and cappuccinos, the baristas are quite creative and we are developing all kinds of new drinks. Our children are also learning to drink things like coffee floats and frappuccinos. So yes, we do drink coffee!

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a founding member of Gorilla Conservation Coffee. Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International. Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director. 

Want to buy Gorilla Conservation Coffee? Click here.

Saving the Gorilla with Quality Coffee

By Rupi Mangat, The East African on 25 August 2018

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka believes in love at first sight because it happened to her.

It was back in 1994 when she was a veterinary student at the University of London’s University Royal Veterinary College.

She had travelled home to Uganda to do field research at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park when she met and fell in love with Kacupira.

Kacupira was a silverback gorilla, and his name in the local Rukiga language means ‘’broken hand.’’

“Kacupira was so calm and just watched us. Watching him on that day, I felt a real connection with him.” But tragedy struck soon after that fleeting meeting. Kacupira’s group got infected with scabies and was wiped out.

Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka recalls that she was heartbroken and “That’s when we realised that gorillas can get infected with human diseases carried by the local communities whom they share their habitat with. Before that we were more concerned about tourists infecting gorillas. Now another big threat was the local community.”

She became a crusader to save the Bwindi gorillas and founded the Conservation Through Public Health in Uganda in 2003.


Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka is soft-spoken and easily gets lost in a crowd, that is until you engage her in conversation, especially about mountain gorillas.

Her voice becomes animated and her demeanour changes to that of a person on a mission.

Ours was a chance meeting at the Louis Leakey Auditorium at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi recently where she was attending a Kenya Museum Society talk on gorillas by the English couple John and Margaret Cooper.

John is a veterinarian and pathologist and Margaret an animal lawyer who worked with Louis Leakey as his unpaid volunteer on apes between 1950 and 1970.

Kalema-Zikusoka knew she wanted to work with animals from a young age.

In high school, she revived the defunct Wildlife Club and today she is the chairperson of Wildlife Clubs of Uganda, an offshoot of the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, the oldest grassroots organisation of its kind, started in 1968 to teach students wildlife and environment conservation as a non-academic subject.

Coffee and the Gorillas

With the demise of Kacupira and his group, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka’s research led her to the coffee farming community around Bwindi.

“They are poor and eking out a living as small scale coffee farmers,” she explains. Since coffee trees are bushy, they are ideal as gorilla hangouts and farmers came up with scarecrows dressed in dirty rags to keep them off their precious crop.

But the farmers went a step too far. The dirty rags were infested with the highly contagious scabies-causing mite, Sarcoptes scabiei.

Although easily treatable in humans, in the great apes it proved lethal.

This is where Conservation Through Public Health came in. “It was the start of Conservation Through Public Health in 2003 because we realised that we had to improve community health if we were to save the gorillas,” says Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka.

Since poverty plays a big role in keeping people unhealthy, she saw an opportunity to improve the livelihood of farmers while saving the gorillas at the same time.

Although coffee is a premium cash crop, the farmers were receiving a pittance for the world’s best loved beverage.

CTPH came up with a social enterprise, the Gorilla Conservation Coffee in 2015, an idea that has transformed the lives of the coffee farmers and the great apes.

“If we could lift the farmers out of poverty by getting better prices for their coffee, we could improve their living standards and save the gorillas. This became our focus,” she says.

The day I met her, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka was wearing the trademark T-shirt with a gorilla and a coffee bean.

Members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Co-Operative receive higher prices for the high quality Arabica coffee.

Branded Gorilla Conservation Coffee, it is sold at the Gorilla Conservation Café in Entebbe and many other outlets including tourist lodges in Bwindi and is also available online.

Positive outcome

“Since 2003, CTPH has not lost a single gorilla to scabies,” says the proud gorilla crusader. But there is still a long way to go as she says for there are many more farmers out there who need to be supported by Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

“The other good news is that Ugandans will not kill a gorilla now because of the income they receive from the great ape. We also generate income from tourists walking through the farmers’ coffee fields to reach the park.”

With every sip of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a gorilla life in Bwindi is saved.