Coffee. It’s a major industry in Uganda and yet a ‘coffee culture’ is just beginning to take root in Kampala. Historically, coffee was viewed as a ‘cash crop’ and there were also widely held beliefs that it was a ‘men’s drink’. Roberts Mbabazi is at forefront combating these myths, fostering a pride in Ugandan coffee and promoting the coffee culture trend. And, as three time winner of Uganda’s National Barista Championship, he believes it is a trend that is taking root.
Growing up in Kampala Roberts’ interest in coffee was first sparked in 2005 when, after completing secondary school, he set out to find his first job. Starting at Speke Hotel as the assistant in the bar he was able to more closely observe the espresso machine and became very interested in espresso-based drinks.
The coffee shop concept intrigued Roberts and he wondered why there was a coffee shop culture in other countries, with proprietors making huge profits, but the idea was virtually absent in Uganda despite coffee being so profitably grown. Paying more attention to this he says his, “passion and love for coffee grew by the day”.
In 2007, the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (http://www.ugandacoffee.org/) held a barista training course to try to boost domestic coffee consumption. Roberts explains that in order to get people interested in trying coffee it has to first be prepared correctly following quality parameters. This training gave him clear insight into the specialty coffee industry.
Being a barista is not as easy as it looks and isn’t simply about making a cup of coffee. You need to know how coffee is cultivated, harvested, processed, liquored, roasted, blended and brewed. As Roberts explains, “It’s an art that takes some time. Hence, training a barista requires one to be aware of what coffee goes through at all stages. It also has to be viewed as a profession and career in which you should be willing to invest your time and sometimes, money.”
In 2008, the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, in conjunction with the Africa Fine Coffee Association (http://www.eafca.org), held the first ever Uganda National Barista Championship. At this event, each barista had to convince a panel of judges that they had mastered the craftsmanship of brewing, tasting and serving specialty coffee drinks. The winner would get to represent Uganda at the World Barista Championship. In 2008, Roberts went over the allocated time and was disqualified from the competitions. The following year, he competed again and won. He travelled to Canada for further training before going on to Atlanta, in the United States, for the World Barista Championship. In 2010, he was selected as the champion again and sent to the Netherlands for training before competing in London.
Taking some time off in 2011, Roberts decided to start a coffee consulting company, Barista Pro Coffee, through which he offers barista training courses and roasting and consultation services. Before starting the company he travelled to Switzerland and Italy to research their coffee cultures. Partnering with Great Lakes Coffee Ltd, he has created three unique blends of roasted coffee which are tasted, roasted, blended and packed right here in Kampala.
Roberts sees coffee as a vibrant and emerging sector which could make a huge difference to Uganda’s economy in the coming years. “A very big percentage of young people in Uganda are unemployed,” he says. “The coffee sector in Uganda has the potential of curbing these numbers down. My only advice to the youth out there who have not yet got their dream jobs, please start thinking about the coffee and service industry. By approaching organizations like the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, a whole new line of opportunities can be opened up.”
However, he also believes that the demand for coffee needs to be developed within Uganda as the greater the demand, and the more coffee shops the more farmers will get a premium for the coffee they grow.
“There has been a tremendous shift within the Uganda coffee shop culture,” he maintains. “A few years ago, we could only hear of two or three prominent coffee shops, Ban Café, Café Pap and 1000Cups. Now, we count over twenty and the number is rising by the day as people are shifting away from going to the bars for meet ups and breaks and now they would rather be seen in a coffee shop.”
Roberts favourite coffee drink is an espresso macchiato which consists of a standard shot of espresso and just a touch of foamy milk. Why? “I like it for its quick reactions in the body and the stout coffee taste. It is very flavourful and delicious!”
In 2012, Roberts again won the National Barista Championship. Travelling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia he participated in the African Barista Challenge and won before travelling on to represent Uganda at the World Barista Championship in Vienna, Austria.
However, big an impact Roberts is making internationally it is his championing of Ugandan coffee and promoting Ugandans enjoyment of Ugandan coffee that is the real prize.