This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Just 1,004 – that’s how many Mountain Gorillas are left in the wild.
A decade ago, the numbers were even bleaker, with only 786 individuals on record. Under the watchful eye of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, conservation efforts are beginning to pay off – with a surprising assist from coffee lovers.
Located on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to about half the world’s Mountain Gorilla population. Despite the progress, however, the apes aren’t in the clear as long as Uganda’s agriculture-reliant economy continues to struggle.
What the World Bank terms “low productivity agriculture” makes up over 70% of all employment in Uganda, with most of that activity stemming from the country’s 2.5 million smallholder farms. Growing a variety of subsistence and intended cash crops, 67% of small farming families report living on less than $2.50 a day, some tallying their expenses at less $6 per month.
When income to cover basic expenses like food and healthcare is lacking, farmers and villagers are more likely to disturb gorilla habitats. As people venture into the forest to source medicine and hunt for food, it drives up incidences of poaching – but getting farmers fair prices for well-reputed cash crops like coffee can help reverse the effect.
Breaking the Commodity Cycle
In many parts of the developing world, “there’s always a commodity drive, and there’s always large mining, large conglomerates, large monoculture,” says Fiona Tanner, Director of Strategy and Market Development at Gorilla Highlands Coffee. “Usually, communities don’t want them, but they end up buying into it because it’s the only way of livelihood.”
Founded in 2015 by Uganda native Richard Rugaya, Gorilla Highlands Coffee is interlacing holistic coffee farming with conservation and larger community development. Fiona joined the operation in 2019 to further strategic partnerships on both a local and world scale, combatting the root causes of poverty in Uganda’s rural areas.
“They aren’t making much from their own small farms, and their own efforts, by themselves,” she notes, referring to farming communities trapped in exploitative commodity cycles. “The only way to break through that is to get people together on a more collective, cooperative basis, create volume, create a strategy that will allow them to bring that product to the marketplace, efficiently, economically, and with increased livelihood going back to people.”
Fiona is no stranger to coffee for conservation. Growing up in Papua New Guinea, she experienced firsthand the threat commercial logging and oil palm plantations had on the habitat of the Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly, a species found only in a 100-mile mountain corridor. To fight the corporate takeover of the region and give locals the autonomy to choose, she helped organize a 2,300-strong smallholder coffee exporting cooperative and campaigned to designate the butterfly’s habitat as a protected area.
When she left Papua New Guinea for the US, a family acquaintance encouraged her to explore the idea of using a similar model to protect Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas – a framework she found already in use at Gorilla Highlands. At the time, their coffee was being sold domestically, with limited room for growth, and she’s been working to reach new markets ever since.
A “Fresh” Take on Value Chains
Over the last 10-15 years, Ugandan cooperatives have succeeded in cultivating specialty-grade coffee, but high cupping scores only raise farmer profits marginally. A product roasted and ready to brew commands the best revenues, but Gorilla Highlands tells us less than 1% of coffee is roasted at-origin, tipping the value chain in favor of importers and continuing to leave farmers in deficit.
“The commodity market is certainly important, to be able to supply green bean directly to a buyer or roaster,” says Fiona, “but really, the value of coffee remains with the roasted product.”
Though coffee roasting in a producing country is almost unheard of, especially for export, Gorilla Highlands doesn’t let that stop them from offering three distinct coffees to consumers in the US. That’s made possible by government-sponsored communal roasting infrastructure available to all farmers, which also furnish packaging and labelling services.
There’s also an issue of freshness. It takes around two weeks after harvest for coffee to be de-pulped, fermented, and cured, thus reaching the green bean stage. Coffee usually tastes best when roasted within two weeks of completing the initial processing, Fiona explains, but instead shipping takes 2-3 months for roast-ready beans to reach coffee companies abroad.
Traditional export methods technically give the consumer a fresh roast, yes, but truly fresh coffee beans? Not so much. Gorilla Highlands, on the other hand, air freights their finished coffee to the US once a month, ensuring no time – or flavor – is lost.
Integrated Community Development
One of the taglines on Gorilla Highlands’ site is “Coffee that sustains our homes, hearts, and habitats.” Besides stimulating a better income for farmers, coffee sales and activism have allowed the company to launch several additional community-building efforts via the nonprofit Noble Gorilla Foundation.
For instance, when a representative from Kisizii Hospital reached out in 2016 to see about serving Gorilla Highlands’ locally roasted coffee in the hospital cafe, it was the beginning of a partnership that helped bring health insurance to 100-plus farmers, thereby reducing their reliance on bush medicine.
Gorilla Highlands’ coffee harvest and initial preparation is handled mainly by women, who make up 60% of the cooperative’s membership. But harvesting is seasonal work, resulting in long periods without a paycheck, so a community training center called House of Bwindi provides them with crafting and tailoring skills to facilitate year-round income as a complement to coffee farming.
A new program launched in 2019 aims to create a funding stream for scholarships that “will continue year after year,” Fiona says. Under the program, Gorilla Highlands donates coffee seedlings to local high schools, where 30 students per school learn to tend the plants from the 9th to 12th grade.
Since coffee trees take three or four years to bear fruit, the revenue from each harvest will be reinvested in a fund to finance a university education for each cohort of students involved.
Another long-term investment in community building means using profits to help support tourism jobs with the Uganda Wildlife Authority – work that presents another alternative to poaching. The Authority’s gorilla trekking program permits closely controlled groups of no more than eight people to spend an hour in Bwindi Forest, attracting tourists from every area of the world and raising awareness around the systemic challenges and rewards of gorilla conservation.
When asked if increased tourist activity has any negative effect on the gorillas or communities, Fiona gives a firm no, pointing out that external factors like industrialization and civil unrest are far worse threats. “People love their land,” she says thoughtfully. “They love their environment, they want to protect it. If they have their economic needs met, there’s no need to then go in, and take it to a level of greed and degradation.”
Spend for good: American coffee lovers can support the work of Gorilla Highlands by purchasing three unique blends in the U.S. online store. And visit sister nonprofit Noble Gorilla Foundation to learn all the ways that conservation and community-building go hand-in-hand.
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