Reformed poachers turn to coffee farming for livelihood

Immaculate Tumwebaze, the Kataara Women’s Poverty Alleviation Group Chairperson in a coffee garden at the fringes of Queen Elizabeth National Park. PHOTO/ZADOCK AMANYISA

What you need to know:

  • Reformed poachers, who are now farmers are supported through training in sustainable coffee farming and processing.

  • This improves the coffee quality, increases production and protects wildlife habitat.


Growing human populations in communities neighbouring protected areas have continued to become a major threat to the rising number of wildlife populations across Uganda. The continued habitat loss on the side of protected areas frustrate wildlife conservation efforts.
Human activities such as agriculture and industrialisation have forced hundreds of animal species into migration and facilitated human-wildlife conflict because activities exert more pressure on natural resources, which serve as natural habitats for animals.
In the past, people living around Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park would go into the parks for poaching and timber cutting as sources of food and livelihood.

These daily struggles caused mayhem because many members of the public lost their lives after they were killed by law enforcement teams and animals. In Rubirizi district, a number of family heads died guarding their crops against elephant raids
“Most of us are widows because our husbands were shot dead by rangers. They were found hunting in the park. Elephants destroyed our gardens and we felt like killing them in order to compensate ourselves with ivory. But we were aware that this was illegal,” Birungi Mwanje, a member of Kataara Women’s Poverty Alleviation Group (KWPAG), a group running projects that minimise environmental impacts on Queen Elizabeth National Park shares.

Coffee growing 
To address this conservation challenge, communities in south western Uganda, have been organised into Arabica coffee growing and value addition groups. The two strands of growing and value addition have proven to be alternative sources of livelihood.
According to Moses Agaba, the group coordinator of KWPAG, women have since actively participated in growing of coffee and value addition.
“Most of these are widows whose husbands died in the park. They used to sell meat obtained from the park as a source of livelihood. Today, they are now busy processing coffee and they are earning a living. A woman who is busy roasting coffee cannot send her son to the park for meat,” says Agaba.

The group known as Kataara Women’s Roasted Coffee Beans, collects red coffee berries from their own gardens and out growers, process it into roasted berries or powder and sell it to tourists or hotels, where they get more yields.
“From out growers, we buy one basin of red coffee at Shs2,000 and after processing it, a basin goes for up to Shs 374,429 and to us, this is a profitable business. We cannot go back to the park,” women coffee farmers say.

During the peak season, the group fetches up to Shs2 to 3 million per month, whereas during off season, they get Shs600,000-Shs800,000. Immaculate Nyangoma Tumwebaze, the group chairperson, says they chose coffee growing after they found out that coffee cannot be eaten by elephants. Aside from coffee farming, do they do other activities such as turning elephant dung into paper and art objects, which they sell to earn money. Coffee growing also helps the residents protect their soil from erosion

Supporting community tourism
When tourists visit the Kicwamba community, where KWPAG is located, they support community tourism by visiting coffee gardens, processing centres, where they pay to see value addition activities and also end up supporting different interventions that protect the park.
In Rubirizi District, coffee contributes 68-70 percent to the economy, according to Habib Kaparaga, the district secretary for finance and administration. Areas engaged in coffee growing include Kicwamba, Katerera, Ryeru, Kirugu and Kyabakara.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, where 1,063 mountain gorillas live today, is surrounded by isolated and impoverished communities. In the past, due to their close proximity both inside and outside the national park, preventable infectious diseases would spread between humans, gorillas and livestock.

This along with habitat encroachment, poaching and economic instability threatened the existence of the mountain gorillas, until Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the first Wildlife Veterinary Officer of the Uganda Wildlife Authority Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) came and established Gorilla Conservation Coffee as a social enterprise for neighbouring communities.
CTPH promotes biodiversity conservation by enabling people, gorillas and other wildlife to coexist through improving their health and livelihoods in and around  protected areas and wildlife rich habitats.

Need for livelihood
Dr Zikusoka discovered that coffee farmers in Kanungu District were not being given a fair price for their coffee and were struggling to survive, forcing them into national parks to meet their basic family needs, specifically food and fuel wood.
Gorilla Conservation Coffee pays a premium of Shs1,872 per kilogramme, above the market price, according to Edward Sekandi, the CTPH operations manager.

“These are mainly former poachers, now reformed. They are converted into coffee growing. It is an intensive, engaging and profitable activity that they no longer want to go back to the park,” says Sekandi.
GCC prevents residents from practicing deforestation for charcoal and rallies them into shade tree planting in their coffee gardens in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Sekandi says farmers are encouraged to use organic manure in their coffee gardens instead of artificial inputs, which he says spoil the soil structure.

Reformed poachers, who are now great farmers are supported through training in sustainable coffee farming and processing. This helps them to improve the coffee quality, increase production yield and protect the endangered gorillas and their habitat.
“When you are tracking gorillas, you tour coffee farms. We buy coffee from farmers and sell it to traders, roasters and retailers and the donations from every bag sold, goes to the work of CTPH,” says Dr Zikusoka.

The coffee is 100 percent premium Arabica, which is selectively harvested for only red ripe cherries, handpicked, wet processed and dried under shade. This coffee is tested for quality at every level. The coffee is roasted and packed to quality standards.
Each cup has a unique aroma with hints of caramel, butter notes and almond, with a citrus taste and a sweet finish. The group’s first blend is named after Kanyonyi, the former lead silverback of the Mubare gorilla group, located in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

The coffee is majorly sold in the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, France and South Africa.  GCC makes a special effort to support women coffee farmers, helping to provide opportunities for economic empowerment, disrupt male financial dominance and break and stereotypes.

Coffee helps protect Uganda’s endangered mountain gorillas

Poor communities in Bwindi national park have long depended on what the forest can provide. But with gorillas under threat, coffee now offers a more sustainable living.  

Robert Byarugaba, now 45, began poaching with his father in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at just eight years old.

“My dad would force me to follow him to go in the park because I was his only son,” Byarugaba says. “We poached and hunted from Monday to Sunday. Every day we would be in the forest.”

The father and son weren’t the only ones, there were many hunters who combed the forest for bushpigs, antelopes, goats, and sometimes gorillas. The great apes might be killed to feed local families, or their meat and body parts could fetch high sums on the market for bush meat or traditional medicine.

Read more: Dian Fossey: Gorilla researcher in the mist

Uganda is home to almost half of the world’s estimated 1,000 surviving mountain gorillas. In 1991, when the primates’ population fell to an estimated 300 animals, the Ugandan government made Bwindi a national park. That meant increased protection and regulation of access to the park. But many poachers continued to hunt all the same because their livelihoods depended on it.

Read more: Gorilla population in Africa rises

After five years, Byarugaba gave up poaching and began to grow coffee, but he couldn’t sell enough to make a living and supplemented his income taking tourists bird spotting in the forest.

Robert Byarugaba, poacher turned coffee farmer in Uganda's Bwindi forestRobert Byarugaba began poaching with his father when he was just eight years old

Since 2017, that’s changed. Thanks to the work of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, Byarugaba says he now makes a reliable living from his coffee plantation. The social enterprise advises coffee growers and buys their crop, so they don’t have to resort to pillaging the forest.

Read more: The wilderness and the war

Making coffee profitable

The project was started by Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. A wildlife veterinarian, she first came to Bwindi in 1994 and was struck by the poverty blighting villagers in the national park. Later, she founded the NGO Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to tackle disease transmission between humans and wildlife. Tracking gorillas through the forest, she would cross coffee farms. That got her thinking.

Read more:  10 facts you probably didn’t know about great apes

Not all coffee farmers were supplementing their meagre income with legal occupations like bird spotting. “We found that some of them were poachers and were going into the forest in order to just get food to feed their families and firewood to cook, and they didn’t have enough money to buy meat,” Kalema-Zikusoka says.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, wildlife veterinarian and founder of Gorilla Conservation CoffeeVeterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka realized that to protect gorillas, people had to be lifted out of poverty

One farmer who fitted that profile was Safari Joseph. He began growing coffee in 2007 but like Byarugaba, for many years he didn’t make enough from it to live on. He got together with others in his community to find a solution. “Our challenge was that when we started coffee growing, our coffee had no market,” he says.

“That’s when we went to Dr. Gladys and convinced her to work with us and market our coffee.” She said yes, on the condition that they stop poaching. In 2015, Kalema-Zikusoka founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

Today, the brand supplies shops in Uganda, Kenya, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. It currently pays the equivalent of €0.31 ($0.34) for a kilo of red coffee cherries, almost twice the regular market price. The 500 farmers benefiting from these premium prices are members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative, to which Joseph serves as secretary.

Safari Joseph and Sanyu Kate of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Collective in Uganda Safari Joseph and fellow member of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Cooperative, Sanyu Kate

Musiimenta Allen, 32, oversees compliance for the cooperative, making sure its members adhere to practices that protect the forest. She is also one of two women on its committee — a position she uses to ensure the voice of female coffee farmers is heard.

Since her husband died in 2014, Allen has had to support herself and her two boys from her coffee plantation. She used to depend on the forest for daily essentials like firewood, but since joining the cooperative in 2016, she can afford to buy firewood instead.

Read more: Can renewable energy save Uganda’s Rwenzori glacier?

Struggling with cash flows and pests

Despite the gorilla logo that distinguishes Allen’s coffee on supermarket shelves, neighborly relations with the endangered primates aren’t always smooth. Occasionally, they invade her farm and destroy her crops. She also wishes Gorilla Conservation Coffee could provide its farmers with loans so they could increase production. “Sometimes I want to grow more coffee but I don’t have [enough] money,” Allen says.

Musimenta Allen of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Cooperative, Uganda Musimenta Allen would like to be able to invest more money in her coffee plantation

And Joseph is concerned that Gorilla Conservation Coffee cannot always afford to buy all the coffee from its farmers, leaving them frustrated.

Kalema-Zikusoka concedes this is a problem. Gorilla Conservation Coffee relies on donor funding to buy coffee up-front and cut out the middlemen. But that means it doesn’t always have the cash to buy as much coffee as it could sell. “Because we don’t have enough money to buy coffee from the farmers, we aren’t able to fulfil the demand,” she says.

Byarugaba would also like to see the social enterprise provide more technical support. It teaches farmers better practices, but doesn’t provide experts to evaluate their farms. “Sometimes there are pests and diseases that we don’t understand, and the coffee trees get dry,” he says.

Read more: Africa’s Green parties bet on international help

An ethical choice over the thrill of the chase

And there’s something else about Byarugaba’s life as a farmer that leaves him wanting. He misses the old days, the thrill of the chase as his dogs gained on an antelope, the sound of hunting bells, and days trekking through a forest he rarely visits nowadays.

Coffee cherries, Bwindi, UgandaThe ripening cherries of a Bwindi coffee plant. Commanding a premium price, the crop offers viable alternative to poaching

“I like poaching, most of the things I enjoyed in my life was poaching,” Byarugaba says, looking out over Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and breaking into a chuckle. Yet, on balance, he says it’s worth the sacrifice: “With coffee farming, I can always be assured of school fees for my children.”

Bwindi’s gorilla population has now grown from fewer than 300 in 1995 to over 400 . So, as well as paying a decent living, Byarugaba feels his decision has contributed to a greater good.

“In past years, I regretted [my decision] because we could get much from the forest,” he says. “Then I started earning some money and I don’t regret anymore: this life is better than the first.”

Author: Caleb Okereke-DW.COM