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

#ThePowerOfOne: Dr Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka on Conserving Gorillas, One Sip at A Time

Recently, a Thursday midmorning found me at the office premises of the Gorilla Conservation Coffee (GCC) at Kiwafu, Entebbe. Curiosity had pushed me to have a conversation with Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, the CEO and Co-founder of GCC to learn about their work as a social enterprise in the coffee business.

Upon getting there, one thing struck me; the writing on the wall. If the literal meaning is to go by. The walls have been plastered with different media stories telling the story of Dr. Kalema- Zikusoka. Her role as the pioneering gorilla veterinarian in the country is the common denominator of all the stories written. Twenty three years ago, her journey as a vet began. It still goes on to date. However, she has broadened her wings to fly higher together with her dear husband Lawrence Zikusoka with whom they are co-founders at Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) and GCC. In all the life of CTPH, the organisation has worked with the communities around Bwindi to improve the health of both the gorillas and the communities as a means of combating diseases that could easily wipe them away.

With the passing of time, there was a problem. Human population was growing and the land was not expanding. The communities around Bwindi were invading the forest and in turn causing a health hazard to the gorillas. With this came the exposure of the human contact with the gorillas. The gorillas would easily pick up everything the human beings left behind and that meant transfer of diseases and all. One such a case was a scabies outbreak in 1996 which was Dr. Kalema’s first assignment at Bwindi.

The scabies outbreak was found to be caused by gorilla interaction with the poor hygiene among the communities. “Gorillas are curious animals that they touch everything they come across. They can easily catch diseases once they have human interaction,” tells Dr. Kalema.  “In the case of Bwindi, the gorillas are found to be in the proximity with human settlement unlike other places like the Virungas where they’re up in the forests and people in the valleys. The hygiene among the communities was wanting.”

With a growing human population that looks at the forest for survival, there was need to come up with a solution to avert this interaction. There was a high birth rate with a minimum of 10 children in each household. Children were looked at as service providers to the work being done at home.

Mothers staying up in the hills lacked access to maternal health care and were consequently faced with health challenges. Worse of it, they lacked money to go to health centres. For the conservation of gorillas to be realised, there was need to distract the human population from invading the gorilla space. There was also need to put money in the pockets of the locals to which they had to have a direct contribution. This meant involving them in income generating activities

That is how Gorilla Conservation Coffee was born three years ago. Coffee came out as an idea that was worth exploiting. The routes to gorilla tracking passed through scanty coffee trees. With GCC, the coffee was prioritised. The communities were taught about sustainable agriculture. They were introduced to intentional farming techniques to provide them food and also earn them an income.

The idea was simple yet it had a very big impact. The story is changing lives. “It is such a beautiful thing when you get everyone involved. In situation where you had children waking up to go to the garden to act as scarecrows, they now wake up going to school.”

Men are working with their wives tending their coffee gardens. The most interesting bit is that human interference with gorillas has greatly gone down. Since gorillas do not eat coffee berries, this harmonised the co-existence of the two.

Most importantly though is that there is money trickling down in the pockets of these farmers. They are earning from their coffee. They are minding their business just as the gorillas. It is what you could say to each their own.

The coffee grown by these communities is processed, packaged and sold under the Gorilla Conservation Coffee brand. The sales from the coffee go directly to the pockets of these farmers.

“The idea of conservation has to include the interests of everyone involved. As you conserve the gorillas, you should be able to conserve the people in communities. It is important the co-existence is conserved as well.”

From every pack of coffee, a percentage goes to CTPH which helps with facilitating community and gorilla health. They are currently working with 500 farmers around Bwindi. Coffee reminds the farmers to be self-sustaining other than expect to survive on hand-outs.

“To drink coffee is to be a responsible consumer. The benefits trickle down directly to the household farmers.”

Today, for every pack of coffee, a child is able to go to school. For every cup of coffee, a mother is able to afford a hospital bill.  For every sip of the gorilla conservation coffee, a gorilla is conserved.

It is through that one pack, one cup and one sip that a new story is being told in the effort to conserve gorillas at Bwindi.

You deserve a sip of Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Buy a pack of Gorilla Conservation here.

Photo taken by www.unboundproject.org

Written by DAVID KANGYE

Hotel Stuff South Africa – Online Directory Helps to Promote Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Lorraine Jenks met Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and Lawrence Zikusoka at a Sustainable Travel summit in Kenya last week and was blown away by their work. Gorilla Conservation Coffee stands for everything we believe in. It ticks every conservation, sustainability and greening box possible. Coffee farmers were identified as being some of the poachers, so in helping them grow top quality coffee and find good markets; the previous poachers are now the guardians of the mountain gorillas. Is that not a wonderful story?

Gorilla Conservation Coffee is 100% premium Arabica that is selectively harvested from only red ripe cherries, hand picked, wet processed and dried under shade. The coffee is tested for quality parameters at every level. It is roasted medium and packed to the highest 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 team at Hotelstuff and Greenstuff would really like to help promote this product so that it becomes an example for other conservationists to emulate.

www.hotelstuff.co.za/suppliers/entry/gorilla-conservation-coffee