Mount Elgon, the home of Sipi Falls, is where God lives according to local legends. And it’s easy to see why: the green, fertile slopes are dotted with numerous waterfalls and streams, making this a heavenly place for both people and coffee.
Sipi Falls is located in eastern Uganda, bordering Kenya, and this region produces some of the finest Arabica in the country and the world. While Uganda is known for its Robusta coffee, specialty Arabica has been on the rise, promising better coffee for you and a better life for the coffee farmers. Sipi Falls estate lies between 1500-2500 meters above sea level and is a collective organization that includes 17,000 members, each with organic and Rainforest Alliance certification.
Kawacom, the organization behind the founding of the Sipi Falls collective, began in 2000, with a focus on empowering small farms to produce high-quality coffee. Their mission from the start has been to consider how the Sipi Falls community can be sustainable on multiple levels- environmentally, financially, and socially.
Uganda has many diverse cultures and tribes and Sipi Falls is occupied by two tribes: the Sabiny and the Bugisus. The Sabiny represent a majority of the estate families and this tribe originated in Ethiopia, so they have a long ancestral history of working with coffee. Coffee culture is strong in Sipi Falls and families still dry and roast their own coffee without a machine, purely by hand over a fire. Growing coffee acts as social security for the families on the estate. It can help you get loans, send your kids to school, and manage your household. Coffee is central to life here and a symbol for building a better life for future generations.
Life at Sipi Falls
The first thing that stands out about Sipi Falls is how close-knit the community is. All the farms in the collective are small, family-owned operations. The neighbors regularly help out on each other's farms, reducing the need to hire outside labor. Working together has helped the farms become more productive and produce high-quality coffee beans. There is a fair distribution of revenue from the farm to each farmer and they are encouraged to invest this back into their farms, families, and communities.
Sipi Falls estate believes in beyond coffee as just a business- they want farmers to have a better standard of living, for their children to go to school, and for the community to have access to safety and hygiene measures. Medical care is provided free of cost for all members of Sipi Falls, and a special maternity clinic was built so women didn’t have to travel far for medical care.
Education is emphasized for the children, with the estate supplying scholastic materials and building classrooms. The mountainous terrain makes it hard for children to trek to faraway schools and so to reduce the dropout rate, classrooms were built within the estate.
Access to clean drinking water for a top priority for management when they realized that the women would walk 10kms a day to collect water. The estate made a deliberate effort to help the women by investing aggressively in clean drinking water and they currently have 73 public tap stands that benefit over 20k households with free, clean water.
Women on the farm often only work in the morning and so their afternoons are spent training in a new skill or enterprise (tailoring is a popular choice) so they can earn their own money. Sipi Falls firmly believes in women having independent incomes which is beneficial for families in the long term.
Sustainability at Sipi Falls
The sustainability initiatives at Sipi Falls began with investing heavily in human resources. A dedicated team of agronomists conduct training sessions on the farm to help address the effects of climate change on the farm and educate farmers on how they can adapt. The threat of climate change has been looming over the area for years now and addressing it is considered a collective responsibility on the farm.
The mountain terrain poses a few unique challenges, particularly soil erosion due to runoff from heavy rains. The numerous riverbanks on the mountain have been degraded due to increasingly heavy rains. If soil health decreases, families will leave coffee and move to other crops.
To offset the soil erosion, Sipi Falls works with farmer groups to plant native trees and grass along the riverbanks to help hold the soil together and reduce erosion. They also help farmers with intercropping and tillage to reduce soil erosion. The central nursery at Sipi Falls produces 500,000 seedlings per batch and they now multiply forest tree seedlings there along with the coffee plants. These forest trees are given to the farmers for free and the community cares for these trees together.
Kawacom has also invested in rainwater harvesting facilities, solar power, and biogas. Biogas is a cheap and clean alternative to firewood. Almost every household on the estate has a dairy cow for milk and managing the manure is a difficult task. To solve two problems at once, the estate constructed a biogas plant. This encourages farmers to avoid cutting down trees for firewood and they can easily reuse manure as a fuel source.
Since the farms are so small, each sustainability initiative has been designed to serve multiple purposes and work on multiple levels. The resourcefulness we see here on the farm is a testament to how we can creatively deal with issues of sustainability while also making life easier for small farmers.
From Farm to Cup: Processing Coffee at Sipi Falls
The Sipi region is known for different processing methods, particularly naturals and washed. You can find any aroma or flavor that you want here, simply by tweaking the processing methods and this is how Sipi Falls produces unique, high-quality coffee that helps farmers make a better living.
Sipi Falls boasts one of the best community wet mills in Uganda. This wet mill was constructed in 2010 and serves as the common processing center for family farms. Collection centers are dotted across the estate, making it easier for farmers to transport the fresh coffee cherries.
The community wet mill has helped small farms improve their quality and productivity, as well as access new markets. By tackling issues of quality, consistency, and social barriers, the Sipi collective motivates farmers to keep producing good coffee while maintaining social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
Wet processing starts with collecting good cherries, which are taken to the state-of-the-art wet mill at the center of the estate. This massive milling station is big enough to handle all the coffee collected from the different family farms and a special quality team works on innovating with different processing techniques like red and yellow honey processing. The quality team looks at consistency in quality as well.
Anaerobic processing, introduced in 2020, is a different take on washed coffee that produces unique flavors in the final cup. The method involves collecting coffee cherries and sorting them via floatation in a machine to reduce errors. The best cherries are soaked for a few hours and then put in a sealed, airtight container to undergo fermentation for 24-72 hours, depending on the weather. The coffee cherries ferment without oxygen and without pulping, they are taken to drying tables and turned gently until dry.
A New Era for Sipi Falls
Sipi Falls highlights how the Era of We platform matches their vision to ensure that the hard work of coffee farmers is shared with the world and appreciated. They underscore how important it is to them that you can learn from other estates through Era of We. Through this sharing of information, they aim to improve their coffee year on year and deliver recognition and security for their farmers.
“I love to see the smiles that come on the farmers’ faces after a harvest. Their passion and hard work make me proud; they produce excellent coffee.” explains Daniel Oryem, who works closely with farmers, “Everyone is smiling on the estate; this gives me the energy to do my work.”