Deo runs Eastern Coffee, a coffee-roasting company in Mbale, Uganda. Six years ago, he scandalised the owner of a coffee roaster who found out that the pack of coffee he had just roasted was not from one of his clients. The batch was Deo's, who had placed it in the roasting line unbeknownst to the owner. That scene shaped the values that today guide him as a young agrifood entrepreneur, something he is eager to share with other young people on the same path.
Mbale, a town in Eastern Uganda, is home to at least 30,000 coffee farmers. Deo - with his business and administration studies - had a clear view that his future was meant to be ‘brewed’ in coffee.
‘Small-scale coffee farmers lose a lot of money selling green or raw coffee beans because of the lack of service providers offering commercial roasting services, among other reasons,’ says the 30-year-old Deo. He identified an opportunity in this obstacle and started to roast coffee beans.
At that time, he did not have the machinery for roasting, so he struggled to do it in one of the ten roasters that existed in the city. ‘The roasters in Mbale were not commercial, they didn't offer services to everyone and they only roasted for their brands, so it was quite complicated,’ remembers Deo.
‘One day I went with my partner to pick up a batch of coffee that I had managed to get into a private roastery. I would usually ask someone who was already a customer of the roastery to introduce my batches as theirs, as a favour. That day I forgot to make that person aware of this. So when I saw the toaster owner's son call the supposed owner of my coffee lot, I saw his face distort when he heard that the lot was not theirs.’
At that moment, Deo thought that he was going to lose his most important client. But he acted quickly and called the supposed owner of the coffee lot to apologise for the trouble, and to ask him to claim the coffee batch as his. In addition, Deo offered to pay him a commission.
‘That was the day that I realised I had to set up my own roastery.’
‘That was the day that I realised I had to set up my own roastery.’ He started studying on his own on the internet and on YouTube, because there were no coffee schools in Mbale. He invested in the basic machinery and set up a commercial roastery that now offers all services at affordable prices for anyone who wants to roast coffee. ‘I work and collaborate with everyone,’ he says.
Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, with over 78% of the population under 30. Africa is also the only region where the youth population is increasing.
However, 64% of the population aged between 15 and 29 is either unemployed or under-employed.
Promoting sustainable and inclusive food systems by strengthening youth-led innovative businesses and creative solutions is one of the objectives of Rikolto's Generation Food programme in two cities in Uganda, Mbale and Gulu.
This year alone, between July and August, more than 5,600 people have been displaced by flash flooding in eastern Uganda. Hundreds of people have lost their livelihoods and had their crops destroyed – in a country that is 70% reliant on agriculture to provide employment.
This year alone, between July and August, more than 5,600 people have been displaced by flash flooding in eastern Uganda.
Deo participated in this year's Generation Food programme. In this programme, Rikolto works with young people using various processes and methodologies, to equip them with the necessary basic skills and tools to run their agribusinesses in a more sustainable way.
‘When I look back, I just think of how little knowledge of the market the owner of that coffee roaster had - plus no notion of customer care at all,’ says Deo. According to Deo, their limited knowledge and unwillingness to collaborate merely created competition for his business, Deo's Eastern Coffee roastery!
‘To all young food entrepreneurs I say, be innovative, and instead of creating problems, create solutions – that’s what really pays.’
‘To all young food entrepreneurs I say, be innovative, and instead of creating problems, create solutions – that’s what really pays.’ Deo's business buys coffee directly from small-scale coffee producers. And for two weeks in October, he and other young entrepreneurs visited schools and universities in Belgium to share their entrepreneurship stories.
This year, during the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – COP27 – in Egypt, a Youth-led Climate Forum was organised, for the first time. At Rikolto, we believe that all voices should be given a place to be heard, and Deo and the Generation Food ambassadors from Uganda offer us various insights into how the future could look when young people have the necessary ingredients to transform our food systems towards sustainability.