FARMERS' VOICE RADIO FOR SUSTAINABLE COFFEE LIVELIHOODS ON MOUNT ELGON
Mount Elgon Agroforestry Communities Cooperative Enterprise (MEACCE), Environmental Conservation Trust of Uganda (ECOTRUST), Rainforest Alliance
Guernsey Overseas Aid and Development Commission, Rainforest Alliance
08/2020 to 08/2021
Smallholder coffee farming communities living on the slopes of Mount Elgon
'The Joy of Coffee' on Open Gate Mbale 103.2 FM and Elgon Radio Kapchorwa 95.4 FM
Project Overview and Results:
Smallholders produce 90% of Uganda’s coffee; a major cash crop accounting for 20–30% of foreign exchange earnings. The Mount Elgon region in eastern Uganda is home to approximately 90,000 smallholder coffee farmers and known for its quality Arabica beans. The livelihoods of these farmers are highly vulnerable to climate change, with coffee yields around a third of their potential due to unpredictable weather, a rise in pests and disease (attributed to increased temperatures) and inappropriate farming practices. Landslides are common, caused by flash flooding and exacerbated by deforestation. Sustainability schemes such as Rainforest Alliance can reduce this vulnerability by providing training on climate-smart agriculture that increases productivity and improves soil retention. However, many farmers cannot access this information due to remoteness, low literacy or gender bias. This situation has been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, with face-to-face training interventions paused due to social distancing requirements, restrictions on gatherings and public transport bans.
This Farmers’ Voice Radio project aimed to improve the knowledge, attitudes and practices relating to sustainable coffee production of the 3,033 farmer members of the Mount Elgon Agroforestry Communities Cooperative Enterprise (MEACCE), around 20% of whom are women. Over a 12-month period, 70 individual episodes of the participatory radio programme, ‘The Joy of Coffee’, were recorded and produced in the Lugiso and Kupsabiny languages and broadcast on local radio stations Open Gate FM Mbale and Elgon FM Kapchorwa, reaching over 250,000 people. Of these, at least 2,050 smallholder coffee farmers and their families—71% of members of MEACCE—are known to have benefited directly by listening to the programme at least once a month and adopting the recommendations shared by their peers.
Monitoring and evaluation data point to positive changes to farmers’ knowledge and practices in all the five areas targeted for improvement: quality coffee processing; agronomy and land management; access to the coffee market; gender inclusion; and sustainable coffee livelihoods. Of particular note were improvements to coffee cherry fermentation and drying, and the adoption of good agricultural practices including stumping, soil erosion control and organic growing. Sam, a 71-year-old farmer and Radio Programme Reference Group member, summarised these changes: “As a senior farmer I have improved a lot in my farming… Having attended and listened to the Joy of Coffee radio programmes, I have planted trees at a good spacing. The trees provide shade to the coffee and the leaves act as manure to the coffee. I have also dug trenches in my garden, these help to control soil erosion. My coffee is now performing far better than it was in the past when the fertile soils were being eroded by the running water.”
As well as increased knowledge and improvement in practice, participants in the Farmers’ Voice Radio programmes also talked of its empowering effect – especially for women, whose significant contributions to coffee production often go unnoticed and who rarely have the opportunity to speak out and be heard in public. Short interviews with two women coffee farmers, Esther and Agnes, are available to view on the Farmers’ Voice Radio YouTube channel.
As a farmer-owned-and-run enterprise, MEACCE benefited from the project at an organisational level, gaining 221 new individual farmer members and two new primary society member applicants as a result of the increased profile of the cooperative brought about by the radio programmes. Existing members also experienced improved engagement by cooperative leaders and greater cohesion across the whole organisation was reported.
The radio programmes were also strongly welcomed by sector stakeholders, including the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) and local district governments, representatives of which were involved in the project as technical advisors alongside project co-sponsor, Rainforest Alliance. They recognised the complementarity of the radio programmes to their existing training and extension services, which by their own admission are limited in terms of speed and scale of reach – particularly in the context of two COVID-19 lockdowns. As Mike Maliro from the UCDA explained: “The Farmers’ Voice Radio methodology is fast and wide-reaching agricultural extension approach where farmers are the experts, dominating majority of the conversations while subject matter specialists and radio presenters merely act as facilitators. This programme has created trusted information that not only changes attitudes and perceptions of listeners but also encourages the adoption of new practices in sustainable coffee production”.
The outcomes and learning from this project have already been shared internationally with NGOs, businesses and research institutions across the coffee sector and beyond. Luke Wepukhulu, Operations Manager for MEACCE, participated remotely in a panel of experts discussing the importance of the farmer’s voice in international supply chains during a LYF webinar as well as in the 2021 Manchester Coffee Festival. As a result, a number of other organisations are looking at how they can incorporate the Farmers’ Voice Radio approach into their supply chain sustainability and development programming.
Case study – Simon Wandega, MEACCE and Radio Programme Reference Group member
Simon Wandega is a 50-year-old farmer from Yilwanako in Bugiso North, on the slopes of Mount Elgon. He is married with 10 children between seven- and 27-years-old, five of whom live at home. Simon’s family owns a smallholding of four acres on which they grow arabica coffee intercropped with bananas. They also keep livestock (a cow, twelve pigs and poultry) and run a coffee grinding mill business.
Simon is a member and Treasurer of Yilwanako Growers Cooperative Society, part of Mt Elgon Agroforestry Communities Cooperative Enterprise [MEACCE]. In September 2020, he was selected to be part of the Bugiso North Radio Programme Reference Group for the Farmers’ Voice Radio project; one of twelve farmers whose discussions on different topics related to sustainable coffee production were recorded and broadcast for the Joy of Coffee radio programme broadcast weekly on local station Open Gate FM.
Of his role as a Radio Programme Reference Group member, Simon said: “When I hear my voice over the radio, I feel so happy, and it is exciting. The orientation I got as a radio listener group member was adequate and I was able to play my role very well… In the beginning I used to call and remind people [but] as time went on, they started organizing and gathering for the program by themselves. In the beginning they thought the programme was like any other ordinary programme where people just talk to entertain the listeners, but later they realized we were discussing facts and those that had adopted the changes had started realizing results – that is when they started taking the programme seriously. Then we could call Luke [the MEACCE Operations Manager] to emphasize what we had heard on the radio, for example the issue of coffee prices.”
Simon always listened to the radio programmes twice a week – on a Friday evening at home with his family and on a Monday afternoon with colleagues and customers at work. Often he used the broadcasts as an opportunity to engage the unemployed young people hanging around his businesses site: “Sometimes I find the youth gathered [so] I bring the radio and we listen together. At the end of the programme, we discuss about maintaining the quality of coffee, our health, we reflect on the testimonies shared by the listeners, we also go ahead and share our own testimonies which continues to encourage and empowers them.”
Simon feels very positive about the impact that the radio programmes have had on both his own farming and that of his fellow coffee farmers. “The program has changed my life! Locally we have been growing this coffee as if it’s not a cash crop. We could just leave it to grow on its own without maintenance and just go to harvest. When we started listening to this radio programme we got trained to try and change our practices. I used to dig the coffee throughout, no slashing, and consequently during a rainy season the soil could get washed away. Now I do proper pruning and my coffee looks very healthy. Last season I got some improved yields, but next season am expecting a very good yield.”
Being a Programme Reference Group member has helped Simon to fulfil his elected leadership role as Treasurer of Yilwanako Growers Cooperative Society: “People have started having confidence in the society. This is because they appreciate the way we sensitize them and have come to trust us because whatever they hear over the radio is what they are seeing happening on the ground. Therefore, it simplified my work, from a mere treasurer to someone mobilizing more members to supply more coffee to the society.”
Participation in the radio programmes has also affected Simon’s relationships at home, causing him to reflect on issues around equality and how decisions are made: “I used to sell coffee myself as the man of the family, but when this program came in, I learnt how to work together with my wife. We now make the decision to sell coffee together and when we sell, we know how much we have earned, and we budget together. This has helped us a lot in reducing some of the home conflicts, theft and mistrust.”
Although the radio programmes have now come to an end, Simon is keen to use his raised profile and the increased trust that fellow farmers have in him to continue benefiting others: “Sensitizing people has now become our routine. Even if you are moving on your own business and find people in their fields you can there and then offer advice or even demonstrate on what you have noticed that needs improvement. Behaviour change is gradual so we shall keep reminding and engaging MEACCE where possible.”