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Gorilla Conservation Coffee: An NGO that does what it says on the label

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Gorilla Conservation Coffee: An NGO that does what it says on the label

An extraordinary wildlife vet in Uganda has come up with a scheme that not only helps endangered gorilla populations in the country, but also coffee farmers and other members of the communities that live around their habitat. Report by Jack Dutton.

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is not a huge coffee drinker, but she recognises that her Ugandan homelands can produce some of the finest beans in the world.

Having spent much of her time studying zoonotic diseases, Kalema-Zikusoka’s career history seems a far cry from a cup of coffee. At the age of only 25, she became the first-ever wildlife vet for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), a government agency that conserves and manages the country’s national parks.

Yet through her work, Kalema-Zikusoka often meets many coffee farmers – as many live on the fringes of these protected areas. In 2002 she jointly founded ‘Conservation Through Public Health’ (CTPH), a non-profit that focuses on the interdependence of wildlife and human health in and around Africa’s protected areas.

Dr. Gladys picking ripe berries during a coffee safari at Bwindi. (Photo by Sarah Marshall)

Not only is Uganda famous for its coffee, but it is also known for being one of the main areas in East Africa where endangered mountain gorillas live. One of the places CTPH works is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwestern Uganda, which is home to roughly 500 mountain gorillas, nearly half of the world’s total population.

Gorillas are threatened by infectious diseases spread between them, humans, and livestock, including Covid-19. Many of these diseases are preventable if the right precautions are taken. For example, tourists looking to get close to the great apes are required to wear masks and sanitise. 

The primates are also threatened by habitat encroachment, poaching and the economic instability of the villages on the edge of the park, which rely on the primates for tourism.

Although there are many coffee businesses in Uganda, and many organisations that work in gorilla conservation, until 2015, nobody had combined the two, despite the fact that tourists frequently pass coffee farms when they enter the forest to see the animals.   

“Coffee’s already a traditional activity that people have been doing for decades in Uganda, even before gorilla tourism became a big thing. So why not use something that people are already doing, but just improve on it?” Kalema-Zikusoka tells New African.

In 2015, she founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee (GCC), an organisation that sought to do just that.

“One of the big things I realised is that when we started Conservation through Public Health, we started to improve community health as well as gorilla health together. But we found that many people are unhealthy because they are poor, so we have to also look at helping their livelihoods.”

Improving quality

Gorilla Conservation Coffee pays farmers that live around the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest $0.50 per kilo above the market price for their coffee. For each kilogram sold by the enterprise, $1.50 is donated to support CTPH’s work conserving the gorillas. 

Gorilla Conservation Coffee provides training in sustainable coffee farming and processing to get farmers’ coffee up to a high standard, while also improving their yield.

The coffee is Arabica, which has notes of almond, butter, caramel and date, with underlying sweet and citrus flavours. It is among the best in the world – it ranked in the top 30 in Coffee Review’s 2018 shortlist. Kalema-Zikusoka works closely with agronomists and baristas to ensure that the coffee continues to taste good – so that demand stays strong.  

 The coffee is sold in lodges and shops in Buhoma village on the northern edge of the park, but it is also available all over Uganda, including in the capital, Kampala. It can also be purchased internationally, in select shops in Australia, Canada, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US.

The organisation now works with around 550 Ugandan farmers, up from 75 in the organisation’s early days. But Kalema-Zikusoka has greater ambitions – the initiative only operates in the Kanungu district north of the park, but the vet plans to serve farmers in all districts around it.

“We want to be able to support coffee farmers in two other districts around Bwindi and so the number [of farmers] could increase to 1,000 or even 1,500. Currently, we’ve been focusing on Arabica coffee farmers, but people also grow Robusta,” she says.

Although Robusta beans are not as popular globally as Arabica, Kalema-Zikusoka is keen to make use of them and help support those farmers.

“We want to scale our approach to other countries. But at the moment, even the farmers within Bwindi… we’re only reaching a fraction of those who would like us to support them and even within the 500, we’re not able to buy coffee from them all. We are only able to buy from [about] 150 of them just because we still need the bigger markets. There’s not a lack of demand for the coffee but it’s more of a lack of working capital to buy more coffee to satisfy the demand.”

The first investor in her enterprise was the World Wildlife Fund Switzerland, providing a convertible loan through its Impact Investment for Conservation programme. Kalema-Zikusoka says she is in discussions with other potential donors.

“We’re looking for impact investors, obviously, because they have to also be able to see the social and the environmental impact,” she says. GCC is working with Conservation International, which started the sustainable coffee challenge to make coffee the world’s first fully sustainable crop.

Supporting local employment

One popular spot in Buhoma that serves her coffee is Ride 4 a Woman, a hotel and NGO that helps local women who have suffered domestic violence and finds them paid employment and financial independence. 

Often, this involves weaving baskets, making clothes and other accessories for tourists visiting the gorillas to buy. Evelyn Habasa, 42, who founded Ride 4 A Woman with her husband Denis Rubalema in 2009, grew up in Buhoma, which she says has changed a lot during her lifetime.

When she was growing up, many villagers used to go into the Bwindi Forest to hunt for bush-meat, but now it is illegal to do so.

“When we started Ride 4 a Woman, we had five women who were charcoal burners. Villagers used to cut down most of the trees around the forest, even near the park boundaries, just because they wanted to get charcoal, but when we started working and we called [on] them, they actually came in because that was their only source of income.

“Now they realise their source of income can be something else: they’re very good basket-weavers.”

Habasa now employs 28 weavers who make craft items that tourists buy. To help protect the gorillas and the other wildlife in the park, the NGO works with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to get resources from the forest without harming the animals’ habitats.

“We also had those who used to fight the gorillas because they used to destroy their crops. But they have now realised that the only people who would buy their baskets are tourists, who only come here because of the gorillas,” she says. This mutual dependence has led to  a very different perspective on the gorillas.

“Now the whole community has realised that the only way for us to survive, especially in Bwindi, Buhoma, is by working hand-in-hand with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to conserve this park, because it’s the only source of income.”

But Hambasa and Kalema-Zikusoka realise that tourism can’t be the only income in the long term, especially amid the pandemic and the village’s  rising population growth.

“The Covid pandemic enabled us to kind of expand and realise that Gorilla Conservation Coffee had become a way of supporting the community, even when there are no tourists,” Kalema-Zikusoka says. With the right support, there is no doubt that the special coffee from Uganda will find the sort of scale and markets that will not only support the communities around the conservation areas, but will help ensure that the wonderful gorillas, which are a living heritage for all mankind, will continue to thrive.  

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