Gumutindo means "excellent quality" in the local Lugisu language, and that's exactly what the members of this Ugandan co-op are working toward.
Coffee farming is a main source of income in the mountainous region of the Mbale district and throughout Uganda; it is the most important export crop. Yet, small-scale farmers who depend on coffee for their livelihoods have struggled to make a profitable living in coffee farming because of low prices, low yields, and the poor quality of the coffee being produced.
The members of Gumutindo are working together to increase the quality of their coffee, in hopes of receiving better prices. This collaborative spirit is part of Uganda's history. Farmers living on Mount Elgon, Uganda's highest mountain located near the Kenyan border, first formed village-based co-ops in the mid-1940s as a way to avoid exploitation by middlemen and private coffee traders. By the end of the decade they developed strategic control over the supply and export of coffee in Uganda.
Political turmoil in the 1970s under dictator Idi Amin Dada led to the collapse of the coffee market and the weakening of the co-ops. Unable to export their beans legally, farmers traded them on the black market. Kenya, a two-day journey from the Konokoyi valley, was their channel to the coffee market. The smuggling peaked in 1977. Amin's predecessor, Milton Obote, started a co-op recovery program to help restore the co-op business model in place on Mount Elgon.
But by the 1990s, most of the co-ops collapsed without the ability to compete in the market, which was now dominated by big, private traders (Nestle, Kraft, etc.) As a result, the quality and the price of Ugandan coffee suffered as the demand for coffee increased.
Gumutindo initially formed in 1998 as a collaboration between Bugisu Co-operative Union, a union of 250 primary (village-level) co-ops formed in 1972, and Twin Trading, a U.K.-based alternative trade organization that sources Fair Trade coffee. When Bugisu collapsed in 2003, the participating primary co-ops decided to form their own secondary-level co-op to market coffee independently in the Fair Trade and organic markets, and in July 2003, they became Gumutindo Coffee Cooperative Enterprise Limited (GCCE). Willington Wamayeye, the general manager of Gumutindo, knew that an increase in quality would mean higher prices. He traveled around the mountain encouraging farmers to join the newly formed co-op.
The co-op became Fair Trade certified in 2004. Gumutindo now includes 10 primary co-ops and around 6,000 farmers. The coffee farms that make up Gumutindo are located in the Mbale district of eastern Uganda on the lower slopes of Mount Elgon. The rich, fertile soil and subtropical climate create an ideal environment for growing high-quality coffee, but they also grow cassava, beans, bananas, sweet potato and avocado for their own consumption. This intercropping helps improve the quality of the land and creates shade for the coffee trees.
Members of Gumutindo participate in quality-improvement seminars and practice traditional cultivation and processing methods to produce the highest quality coffee. This includes proper pruning, picking and drying techniques, as well as the use of organic fertilizers and terracing to prevent social erosion and water runoff.
Fair Trade premiums have helped build warehouses, co-op buildings, schools, and health clinics. Most importantly, though, it has empowered the farmers, including women members. Each primary co-op nominates two members to the GCCE Board, one of which must be a woman. The members of Gumutindo hope that the demand for fairly traded organic coffee will continue to grow, so that someday all of the 200,000 farmers on the mountain will become co-op members and will benefit from the co-op structure.