TNDQuestions EFOTI boss’ tea journey, challenges and the future

His Royal Highness Olarker Philip Rauni III [m] EFOTI Limited's Edwin Beekunda Atukunda at the historical tea estate in 2020. File photo.

Welcome to the program Mr Edwin Atukunda Beekunda (EAB), you are our third guest and we are happy to host you today.

Now, tell our audience who you are and what’s EFOTI?

EAB: I am Dr. Edwin Atukunda Beekunda nicknamed Rukundo Egumeho in the West and Lagen in the North, Jalar in West Nile meaning saviour because I saved their tea which was getting wasted; others call me Ladit. I was born in 1976 in present day Mparo, Rukiga district formally Kabale district. My father is Athanasias Beekunda and my mother – Beatrice Beekunda. I am their third born with 11 siblings; five boys and eight girls.

I am a certified agriculturalist and tea expert and the founder of tea growing in Kamwenge district 2014 and Acholi sub region 2018 and the Director of EFOTI (Edwin Foundation Tea Initiative).

EFOTI is a firm that has got a vast experience in tea research, tea production, value addition, product diversification and marketing operating within Uganda and other countries. EFOTI collaborates with different stakeholders, among them: Kenya Kericho Tea Research Institute, NAARO Rwebitaba Tea Research Institute, Gulu University, Zombo Tea Farmers Cooperative Society, NUSAF, Prime SACCO Gulu, Acholi Women Revolution for Commercialised Agriculture, Nwoya Local Government, Alur Kingdom, Ker Kwaro Acholi, UWA, MAAIF, NAADS and OWC.

Qn: Your tea journey started from Kamwenge where you established the first nursery beds and plantation. You made your name there. Do you have a brief story about Kamwenge?

EAB: Well, the journey initially didn’t start from Kamwenge. It started from Bushenyi where i was working as a casual tea worker in 1992 because of school fees challenges. I worked in tea for four years, raised enough school fees that took me back to continue with my studies from senior one until I graduated in agriculture specialising in crop husbandry then i ended up settling in Bushenyi [currently Mitooma district]. Since then, my life totally changed.

They raised me from a casual worker to a field manager at Mukwano [Commodities]; field officer in Madhvani, factory manager, garden tea, then eventually I registered the current company (EFOTI) in 2015.

Qn: You seem committed and dedicated to tea and nothing else.

EAB: Yes I’m really dedicated to tea, however, we also do other things like supplying planting materials to the Ministry of Agriculture, NAADS, OWC and our other collaborators mentioned in Qn.1.

Qn: In 2017 or thereabout, you shifted focus to Northern Uganda where you found tea farmers with no hope for their cash crops; they had no support. What was your first one month like, especially in Zombo?

EAB: My first month in Zombo was full of disappointment because some farmers were trying to uproot tea with no hope of value addition, my first month in Zombo was to train and sensitize tea farmers on how they could manage their gardens and benefit from tea using local means by adding value on their green leaf that is how I came up to pack Zombo Royal Tea which was launched at Muni University by the President HE Yoweri Kaguta Museveni with support of the State Minister of Northern Uganda Hon. Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny and the King of Alur. We managed tea to bring back the face of Zombo Tea.

Qn: Later, Alur Kingdom, Ker Kwaro Acholi, West Nile and Acholi sub-region leaders blessed you and EFOTI for the interventions. They all embraced tea project but why is the impact very little yet in terms of funding?

EAB: First, in Acholi no one believed in tea growing and up to date some people are still thinking tea growing is for other regions even after we have shown to them and tea is doing very well and we are already harvesting and packaging it.

Then some people still think State House sent me; they think I have money, therefore no one can even give you a shilling, not even for a soda. I have spent everything I had and borrowed from every bank with no support just to see this project work and still I won’t give up.

Honestly, I’m not looking forward to making profits in this region but I just want to contribute and support the government efforts towards agriculture and to make sure that we changed the mindset and livelihood of the people of Northern. Remember that passion drives whatever I do for tea because tea changed my life and it can also change other people’s lives.

Qn: You have introduced Zombo Royal Tea, Zombo Tea and recently Nwoya district says they also want “Nwoya tea”; producing them needs a factory, funds and labour force. When is the entire nation going to have the above teas in the markets?

EAB: As long as the government intervenes in this project, it is very possible for all stakeholders to benefit and name their teas against their locations. Tea can do well anywhere, tea is like any other tree only that for it is a tea tree.

Qn: I understand recently you signed a deal with McLeod Russell Uganda Limited to supply green leaf for 5 years. This is good news. Are you ready, are farmers ready, too?

EAB: The farmers are very ready. The tea that was planted in Zombo is already doing well. Government has been promising for long to establish a factory in Zombo and many people especially in new tea growing districts where we have settled are asking themselves and EFOTI. Many people have been asking that if they start tea growing without a factory nearby where would they sell their tea? That is why we came up with an idea of partnering with that factory for easy marketing of our green leaf as we wait for government intervention.

Qn: Also, several farmer groups, Gulu University, Prime SACCO, Zombo Cooperative and district local governments have signed contracts with EFOTI on commercial tea farming, value addition, etc. How excited are you on this, and how promising is it going forward?

EAB: Definitely, I’m very excited and looking forward to doing business because this confirms that people are happy about this development. The moment they all come on board, mobilization will be so easy, thus our dream of having many factories will come true. Therefore, unemployment will be history in Northern Uganda and that is all I need as Edwin.

Qn: You are yet to get support from government but you have been pushing. What has been your worst year, month when financially EFOTI wasn’t stable and yet project should go on?

EAB: That was 2020 during political campaigns, when everyone was still in search for votes and part of 2021 during the COVID-19 period which really affected us because movement had to be limited and, also, we had hoped then that when all get done; we would embark on this project to stabilize the economy of Uganda.

Qn: What’s the best story so far?

EAB: The best story is when NUSAF3 came in to support EFOTI and tea farmers in Northern Uganda; to support the value addition and marketing of tea. Another interesting story was the day when I was introduced to the President as a man who introduced tea growing in Northern Uganda, the day this publication published EFOTI activity online; the day we harvested tea from Acholi sub-region, the day we packed Zombo Royal Tea; the day I planted tea at Lugore government prison farm and the day I flew to South Africa and India on business travels, among others.

Qn: Do you see over 50% of all districts making Northern Uganda embracing tea by 2025 or earlier?

EAB: Yes. Why? Because the leaders are genuinely embracing it, so it’s possible. The leaders can think the same way I thought when I left active politics and concentrate on developing the communities.

Nwoya District, Sub-county and EFOTI leaders and officials during the commercial tea launch early this month. Courtesy photo.

Qn: How will tea change the lives of thousands of households in the region?

EAB: Tea is a cash crop and generational crop that will always give a farmer cash all year round and that cash means a lot to people’s livelihood because it will help them develop their standards of living, and above all they will touch a dollar when exporting their tea.

Tea planting in Nwoya district. It’s expected to address the unemployment question.

Unemployment will be history in Northern Uganda because people will work in factories and tea estates whether skilled or semiskilled and I can assure you it will transform their lives. Personally, it has changed my life and up-to-date making me who I am now.

Qn: What’s your message to the people of Northern Uganda; the (potential) tea farmers and government?

EAB: First, the potential farmers should think beyond. For example, having a vast land with no crop on it to me that is madness because having that empty land is more less having nothing. It’s madness to continue doing the same mistake and expect success, let people of Northern Uganda forget about donations, handouts during training and issue of relying on relatives. The one who relies on relatives dies a poor person.

For government, it should see and think beyond politics. I believe in a leader who shows. People will never believe in your leadership if they cannot learn from you. Government should come on ground to support the initiatives that are trying to develop communities against all odds.

Thank you for your time, and God bless.

EAB: Thank you too for this opportunity and may God bless you too. Milton Emmy Akwam and your team, we thank you always.

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