While Arabica was introduced at the beginning of the 1900's, Robusta coffee is indigenous to the country, and has been a part of Ugandan life for centuries. The variety of wild Robusta coffee still growing today in Uganda's rain forests are thought to be some of the rarest examples of naturally occurring coffee trees anywhere in the world. The coffee trees are intercropped with traditional food crops and grown in the shade of banana trees and other shade trees. In these self-sustaining conditions, coffee is left to grow naturally, flowering on average twice a year.
Uganda has the unfortunate circumstance of being landlocked, and needing good relations with its neighbors to move its coffee crop to a port city. Transportation bottlenecks can result in containers full of steaming coffee beans stuck on the back of a truck or a dock somewhere ...not good for quality! But in recent years the problems of unstable East African politics and weak infrastructure seem to be improving, judging from the excellent quality coffee coming from the Northern Bugisu region along the Kenya border.
Decent commercial coffee marks are the Mbale Bugisu Coffee Factory and the Budadiri Coffee Factory - these are the names of mills where the coffee is prepared. Good Ugandan coffees are both unique among East African coffees and of intense character. Germany has been a strong buyer of Ugandas arabica crop but two years ago the outrageous jump in Java prices resulted in numerous containers appearing in the US as a Java substitute.
Coffees from politically unstable regions, especially East Africa, and the 10-year civil war in Uganda, bring up ethical issues. But the plain fact is this: coffee is a cash crop. It is grown by 300,000 small-holder farmers in Uganda. It is 95% of the Ugandan exports and 2,800,000 people rely on it for a living! Most production is Robusta, and the prices they get are low. Arabica coffee can get a better premium to the farmer, and of course quality also results in increased incentive.
I took my first trip to Uganda in late 2009, but our project did not pan out. Each year we look for new opportunities to find really high quality coffee in Uganda, and we have not given up yet.