Kawacom, one of Uganda’s premier specialty exporters and a beloved supplier partner of ours, has long operated the Sipi Falls wet mill on Mt. Elgon, in eastern Uganda. When Sipi Falls was designed, over 20 years ago, it was a unique wager on the benefit of central processing in a vast smallholder landscape; one that traditionally fermented and dried coffee at home in very small quantities and transacted on a parchment basis with local buyers. The wet mill at Sipi Falls changed the entire dynamic by buying cherry, processing large volumes quickly, exercising quality control right there at the mill, and conditioning finished coffees in bulk in the mill’s high-elevation warehouse. The result for farmers was higher prices up front for less work and almost no risk to degradation. Over time as the mill’s staff improved their processing technique, Sipi Falls began producing honeys, naturals, anaerobics, and variations on the fully washed profile, all of which netted the farmers even more of a premium for their cherry. And roasters were given a long-overdue taste of Mt. Elgon’s unique potential.
In 2015, Kawacom decided to replicate the success of Sipi Falls elsewhere in the country. Uganda exports about 5 million bags of coffee, about as much as Honduras, but the vast majority is robusta, grown across the humid lowlands of Uganda’s center. Other than Mt. Elgon, the prime arabica areas include the Rwenzori mountains in the southwest, and the highlands along the White Nile in Uganda’s northwest, along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zombo district, a few kilometers away from where the White Nile river meets Lake Albert, is where Kawacom set up their second wet mill, known simply as White Nile.
The White Nile wet mill, like Sipi Falls, is predominantly set up for fully-washed coffee. Unlike Sipi Falls, however, natural processing was an operations priority from day one. Cherry for their custom natural processing comes from select high-elevation grower communities within the mill’s greater catchment area, who have a track record of impeccable harvesting. Upon delivery to the White Nile wet mill the day’s cherry is meticulously sorted for imperfections and floated for density by processing staff before being washed clean and moved directly to the mill’s screen tables to dry. The drying cherry is continuously rotated by dedicated staff until the moisture content reaches 11%, at which point it is removed from the drying tables and stored on site for continued conditioning. Each lot is tracked throughout its conditioning phase by the White Nile quality team, who cups and approves every lot at least once just after drying, and again about 2 months later to check that the conditioning is stable. These experimental lots are beloved at Kawacom, and (as with quality teams all over the world with a passion for the new and delicious) are by far the most deliberated. And thanks to the added uniqueness and cup quality, farmers selected for these microlot programs see the highest bonuses of anyone selling cherry to the mill.
Uganda’s White Nile region is still unfamiliar to most coffee buyers, but Kawacom, as they did in Sipi Falls, is slowly exposing the greater specialty world to the potential of this very remote region. The naturals coming out of this part of Uganda are round and mousse-like in tactile with a slight pucker to the acids and notable grape, cranberry, and white peach flavors. It is an incredible experience to see such a prime terroir be unlocked through quality processing, where just a matter of years ago it was often lost in transit.