We travel through the hills along a beautiful winding road to reach Bukonzo Joint Co-operative. Looking up, I can see that right up to the very tops of the hillsides are now being farmed.
De-forestation, coupled with more extreme heavy rainfall has led to landslides. The need for better farming practices to promote sustainability is an issue that Bukonzo Joint is prioritising in the AdaptNow programme with Twin.
We arrive in the busy trading village of Kyarumba. Sunday should be a day for church-going and rest here but it was our only opportunity to visit the co-operative and we are welcomed so warmly, firstly by the co-operative co-ordinator Paineto, then by farmer Kezia and her son Jackson at her home, and finally at the co-operative HQ by lots of members for a brief meeting and shared lunch. Everyone is invited to share the same food and a coffee together, staff, farmers and visitors, whenever they are there.
Kezia was a founder of one of the primary associations of the co-operative, saving hard for many years through the micro-finance facility to pay for her children to go to school. Jackson is Kezia’s eldest son, also a coffee farmer and member of the co-operative, he has just been re-elected at last Friday’s AGM on to the board of Bukonzo Joint. The meeting was attended by over 400 farmers.
The hills are beautiful, we walk along a narrow path past coffee trees and banana plants to arrive at Kezia’s house. Kezia is accustomed to visitors, as a keen participator in the co-operative’s highly successful workshops on gender justice and a model of best practice farming, with her carefully tended to land. She is reserved and dignified but very welcoming. She proudly shows us her new organic certification card. Bukonzo Joint achieved organic certification in December 2012. Kezia has eight children and was widowed eight years ago. She has continued to farm and work hard with her family to ensure their education. Her youngest child is taking his o-levels this year.
The hill beneath Kezia’s house with her coffee trees was incredibly steep, but Kezia just removed her slip-on shoes and nimbly navigated her way down. She is obviously very used to this. Kezia and Jackson show us how they dig small square pits to make compost, to use on the coffee and explain how they do not hoe the ground, but ‘slash’ back the growth to maintain ground cover and soil structure.
They have lived from this land since 1962, apart from for four years from 1996 when unrest in the region forced them to leave and live in a refugee camp. Through the co-operative, they tell me that prices are good this year. They too have been investing in building a micro-station at the association as part of the project that is joint funded by the Rabobank Foundation to transform the quality of their Arabica. The farmers are delighted to spot themselves in their marketing brochures which we plan to present to buyers at trade fairs.
We discuss the main challenges for Kezia and Jackson’s family, and for the wider community. Ensuring that they can support their children through their education is a big factor. Another is lack of access to clean water. They have to fetch water from the river and it isn’t clean. Many people get sick. They hope that as the co-operative becomes more successful and receives Fairtrade premiums, bringing down a clean water supply from further up the mountainside is something they will be able to do.
Acute healthcare, such as operations, is prohibitively expensive as well as too far away. For a woman to give birth in the hospital costs farmers between a third and two thirds of their annual income from coffee for a natural birth, and for a caesarean, it is much more. There is a local health centre, but if women have any complications in labour, they are at great risk of dying. Bukonzo Joint Co-operative is investing in the local health centre, using Fairtrade premiums, to build an operating theatre. The government will provide the staff and is contributing a small percentage of funding to the project. It should save many lives in the region.
I am struck by how the co-operative seems to be providing much of the impetus to turn around the town, not just for the farmers. Their hulling and sorting factory employs up to 130 people during the season now; electricity has recently been installed, although not yet connected except for the president’s visit; the roads are being tarmaced. They have a small roaster where they plan to roast coffee for the local market. The coffee nurseries are full of seedlings. Positive changes are being made in this region, and it seems to be the smallholder coffee farmers of Bukonzo Joint who are at the forefront of it all.