Coffee and COVID-19 – life under lockdown in Uganda for Jenipher

Guest blog: Elen Jones is a long standing member of the fair trade movement, and she currently manages the Climate Change Coffee Project and volunteers for Eglwys Mynydd Seion, Casnewydd/Newport.

Life before lockdown.

Jenipher is a coffee farmer from the Mbale region of eastern Uganda. She’s also the chairperson of her primary coffee co-operative and vice-chair of the main society; Mount Elgon Agroforestry Community Co-operative Enterprise (MEACCE). MEACCE is responsible for exporting the farmers’ coffee around the world.

In February, during Fairtrade Fortnight, Jenipher was in Wales as part of project implemented by Eglwys Mynydd Seion, Casnewydd/ Newport, funded by the Welsh Government Wales and Africa Grant Scheme and supported by Fair Trade Wales, Julian Rosser, Co-operative Pioneer, Ffion Storer Jones and the wider fair trade and farmer communities.

Jenipher was also in Wales to celebrate the commitment made by Eluned Morgan, Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language to support the 3,000 coffee farmers on Mt Elgon by importing six thousand kilograms of their coffee to Wales. The aim of the project, that is managed by Fair Do’s Siopa Teg is to provide the people of Wales with the opportunity to buy Jenipher’s coffee and support the farmers to trade fairly and respond to the climate emergency. If you’d like to be kept up to date on this project, you can sign up to receive the newsletter here.

If only we had known back then how lucky we were to have the fair trade community come together in person. Campaigners, businesses, supporters, and students from around Wales were able to hear Jenipher’s story, face to face. That now seems like such an impossible task. Maybe had we known back then what was to come, we could have appreciated it that little bit more. With her contagious smile and her uplifting stories of how fair trade has empowered her and her fellow women coffee farmers, I feel a sense of hiraeth for those days with Jenipher.

Life under lockdown.

The first case of Covid-19 in Uganda was recorded in March, and the country entered lockdown in early April. Since, there have been fortnightly reviews of the situation – with the next one expected in June. There are currently two hundred and sixty known cases, luckily none in the Mbale region. Farmers are desperate to keep it this way, but the coffee that was picked at the end of the last harvest in December/ January remains on the mountain and they’re prohibited from travelling to gather it for processing under the current lockdown rules.

Farmers are fearful. They are not allowed to travel freely around the mountain to source food and water, and as this is the time when there is the least amount of food available, times are exceptionally hard. The expert hand-sorters who are seasonal workers, and rely on this part of the coffee chain to feed their family at this time, have no coffee to sort. And whilst they may have some spare eggs, vegetables or matoke to trade, the threat of soldiers prohibiting them from doing so is too much for them.

Jenipher told me “We are very scared. The women farmers, who are widowed and are sole-income are struggling to support their families. We need support to buy PPE, basic food, soap and sanitiser for handwashing. And pray for us”. 

But Jenipher is hopeful for the future, when the lockdown will be lifted and they can trade freely, fairly and safely again, “I am so grateful that all the people I met in Wales are thinking of us and that they care. Thank you and see you again in Fairtrade Fortnight”. 

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