How coffee farming is saving mountain gorillas in Uganda

Over the years gorillas have continued to face the risk of habitat loss and poaching. Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, founder of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, is at the forefront to ensure that these world’s largest and highly charismatic primates remain protected. She has collaborated with the coffee farmers in the dense rain-forests stretching across the southwest border of Uganda where an estimated half of the 880 mountain gorillas live today.

It is almost impossible for one to use “coffee” and “gorilla” in the same sentence. We meet Dr. Gladys Kalema – Zikusoka who is bringing these two unrelated words together to impact lives. Founded in October 2015, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a social enterprise that improves the lives of farmers living around national parks by training them on how to grow and process good quality coffee, while paying them premium prices to improve their livelihoods. This stops the farmers from poaching and collecting firewood from the forest to make ends meet. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka shared with us that she gained the confidence to start Gorilla Conservation Coffee after she received training through a programme known as Impact Investment for Conservation that was ran by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Switzerland. She received a loan from WWF CH which helped her begin the business. Gorilla Conservation Coffee was set up to also create sustainable financing for conservation to support conservation efforts on the ground in a holistic way without entirely depending on grants.

Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka (centre) with some of the coffee farmers

Working with gorillas is not a new thing to Dr. Gladys Kalema. She has worked with them for 20 years. She started working with them while she was still a student and later when she became the first veterinary doctor in Uganda Wildlife Authority. During one of her visits to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, she realised that gorillas were falling sick and eventually dying. The gorilla’s health deterioration was mainly caused by the communities living adjacent to the forest. The gorillas would go into people’s gardens to feed on banana stems and in the process, accidentally touch scarecrows with dirty clothing in the gardens meant to drive away wild animals and birds. This experience steered Dr. Gladys Kalema to establish an NGO known as Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). The NGO was meant to reduce disease spread between the community and the gorillas. While working on improving the health of the community and gorillas, it dawned on Dr. Gladys Kalema that the community was unhealthy because they were poor. They didn’t receive sustainable income from the coffee they sold leading them to engage in alternative and illegal forms of income generation; poaching and cutting trees for firewood. The concept of Gorilla Conservation Coffee was at this point birthed to provide an alternative way of improving the community’s livelihood while saving the gorillas.

“Gorilla Conservation Coffee is the only Ugandan coffee expressly created to help conserve the mountain gorillas by directly supporting farmers living around the gorillas’ habitat.”

The main market for Gorilla Conservation Coffee is comprised of; tourists, lodges, expatriates in Uganda, people abroad who want to give back, people interested in gorilla conservation, duty-free shops where people can buy souvenirs and gift shops in Uganda. Part of the donation from every branded coffee bag sold, goes to Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) which runs 3 programmes; wildlife health and conservation, community health and alternative livelihoods.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee stands out from other enterprises within its industry because it works with farmers right at the heart of the gorillas’ habitat. This means that it is involved in the direct conservation efforts on the ground. Another unique fact about Gorilla Conservation Coffee is that aside from supporting farmers with premium prices for good coffee, part of the donation received from coffee bags sold also goes directly into supporting the health and conservation efforts of CTPH at Bwindi. Gorilla Conservation Coffee also stands out as a double impact social enterprise, making impact both in the social and environmental sectors. Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s first coffee brand name, Kanyonyi, has a unique origin. It is named after the lead silverback of the Mubare gorilla group, the first group to he habituated for tourism in Uganda, and this has helped the customers have a personal connection with the brand.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s first coffee brand, Kanyonyi

In its journey towards growth, Gorilla Conservation Coffee has experienced some exciting and memorable moments. For Dr. Gladys Kalema, creating a brand that could pass the intended message to people and stocking their coffee in over 30 outlets in Uganda continues to be a great achievement. Gorilla Conservation Coffee also took part in a crowdfunding campaign where they sold coffee to over 17 countries around the world. To add onto these great achievements, their coffee was tested and approved as being among the best kind in Uganda. It was tested by a specialist coffee taster in the Ugandan Coffee Development Authority.

With great milestones achieved, there are challenges involved and Gorilla Conservation Coffee has its own fair share of these. The biggest challenge has been selling green coffee at a high price. This is a challenge because their consumers are more willing to buy roasted branded coffee at a high price as compared to the green coffee, which is more available on the market. Furthermore, the earnings the business receives from selling green coffee cannot sustain it. Gorilla Conservation Coffee is therefore making every effort to sell coffee as an end product (roasted branded coffee) since it can attract the segment of customers who are willing to buy at a high price. Selling this coffee at a higher price will help sustain the business. Focusing on sales development and working closely with outlets that sell coffee as an end product will also help overcome this challenge.

The specific industry opportunities being addressed by Gorilla Conservation Coffee are in the coffee and conservation industry. In the coffee industry, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is at the forefront to ensure that Ugandan coffee is internationally recognised as an independent coffee brand. In conservation, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is addressing the issue of providing sustainable financing for conservation. However, one of the key challenges faced in the coffee industry is that internationally, people aren’t fully aware of Ugandan coffee and haven’t embraced it as the good quality coffee it has grown to become. This challenge is making it difficult to effectively penetrate the international markets.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee is making transformative impact on the local and international community alike. To the local community, they gave a loan to their first lead coffee farmer to help him secure enough manpower for his vast coffee farm during the planting season. The farmer experienced double revenue increase in that season. In a bid to also impact the international community Gorilla Conservation Coffee hosts Coffee Safaris where tourists who have come to track mountain gorillas learn about coffee growing. The tourists take part in harvesting cherries, pulping them and then tasting the coffee while listening to a presentation about Gorilla Conservation Coffee’s impact. So far, five Coffee Safaris have been held.

Dr. Gladys Kalema’s advice to entrepreneurs is that they need to be focused on what they are doing despite the discouragements or distractions that arise along the way. Entrepreneurs must be willing to take calculated risks and when launching a product, they need to first test it in the market and listen to criticisms raised by people.

Gorilla Conservation Coffee stocked in one of the outlets in Uganda

In the next three years, Dr. Gladys Kalema and her team hope to engage more than 300 coffee farmers, seeing that they are currently working with only 75 farmers. They hope to sell coffee to more countries on an online platform as well as reach more outlets across Eastern Africa and engage distributors in USA, Europe and Asia. They also intend to engage other countries in conservation where gorillas exist.