Our purpose and reason for existence as a business was formed in Kenya. It was here we were first introduced to the many parts of this global supply chain and where we first experienced how good coffee could be. However, it was also where we started to ask questions about how the industry had got to this point and why it was the case that producers of exceptional coffee were still being denied access to the market and control over the transaction.
We have spent the last decade confused as to how this is still the case for the vast majority of producers. With the emergence of Fairtrade, direct trade and the general success of the specialty sector (which aims to put the producer at the forefront), how can it be that coffee as an industry has a great big question mark over its future?
To answer this question, it is necessary to look at how coffee evolved into the industry it is today whereby it is the second most valued commodity in the world after oil. Whilst it was discovered as an indigenous plant growing in Ethiopia, it was introduced to other countries in the Tropics through colonialist settlers. It was through colonialism that coffee was turned into a major export, one that became reliant on cheap labour and that saw most of the profits being sent back to Europe to line the pockets of traders there. This model proved very successful for colonial territories such as Kenya, at least it did until disaster struck in 1933 and then again in 1955 when there was a collapse in the price for coffee. In Kenya, along with a global decline of prices, the debt burden of the colonial government was increasing all the time as it attempted to suppress the Mau Mau uprising.
In an effort to retain revenue through tax earnings (to support the war and maintain its position), the colonial government “was compelled to promote the African peasant producer who could cultivate high quality coffee much more cheaply… it was widely believed that for every eight bags of coffee picked, the government took one to help pay for the ‘Emergency’” (David Hyde, ‘Global Coffee and Decolonisation in Kenya: Overproduction, Quotas and Rural Restructuring’, 2008).
Not only was coffee relied upon to fund the interests of a colonial government, it also had a crucial role to play in sustaining Britain and contributing to the post-war recovery and the re-establishment of its industrial development.
Thousands of Kenyan farmers were therefore encouraged to prioritise high production levels to contribute to tax earnings. Sadly, with the emergence of Brazil and Colombia as powerful production countries, the market was flooded with more coffee than it had demand for. Kenya became a full member of the ICA (International Coffee Agreement) in 1960 which saw producers strictly bound to meet export quotas in an attempt to limit the amount of coffee on the market to suppress supply and raise demand and prices. Producers were not only forced to withhold much of their crop, they were denied access to fair prices but also taxed further to recover losses to the colonial government.
“Are we players in this game or pawns?” (Vava Angwenyi, Coffee Milk Blood, 2020)
This use of the producer as a pawn in the industry has been systemic throughout the history of coffee and other colonial crops such as tea and cacao. It is absolutely to blame for the current state of the industry but it has also helped establish neo-colonialist structures and systems that continue to bring about further inequality.
We pride ourselves on our potential for positive impact in the supply chain we work within. It was in 2016 (4 years after establishing North Star) that we started trying to challenge the typical way of working and buying coffee in Kenya. Up until that point, like many roasters, we had simply enjoyed cupping our way through the best lots of the season before making our selection for the year ahead to showcase the cooperative that happened to produce the most exceptional coffee that year. This approach has cemented Kenya’s reputation as a producer of some of the best coffee in the world but it has stagnated the development of meaningful relationships between buyer and producer. With the demand for greater transparency, the industry has developed in a way that provides any roaster with information on where their coffee comes from for use in the marketing of their product without requiring further involvement or investigation into their suppliers. Essentially, it allows companies to skim off the cream of the crop (the best quality lots) without investing further in those responsible for that quality.
There is simply too much to say here on all that colonialism has to answer for in coffee, but I would urge you to check out the following resources for more information:
Coffee. Milk. Blood.
Desperate to try and find a more impactful way of working, we commenced correspondence with Vava Angwenyi – a Kenyan woman (unlike many exporters in Kenya) focused on contributing to the industry rather than passively participating within it. Vava is anything BUT passive. She has actively sought to change the status quo and centre women and young people at the heart of her operations through the establishment of GDF (Gente del Futuro) – an initiative set up to empower women and youth and give them the tools required to progress within the industry, an initiative we are very supportive here at North Star.
In setting up a small business, you are often faced with challenges and demands on your time that can distract you from seeing the way things work with clarity and without unconscious bias. The events of last year surrounding the murder of George Floyd brought the issue of race and inequality firmly to the forefront of our minds, as it seemingly did with millions of other white people across the globe. Not only were we forced to reflect on our personal privilege and life experience to date, but also that of our industry and the ongoing disparity in our supply chain – no matter how much we would rather it not be there. We are a business that exists to connect buyer with producer but have we showcased those relationships in a manner that has uplifted and empowered the farmers and micro entrepreneurs we work with, challenging the normal narrative of white saviourism?
We spoke to Vava about this at length and she shared with us many of the experiences she has had as a black woman hustling for a place in an industry that continues to be dominated by the white male. These experiences, along with those of many others, had compelled her to put together the absolute masterpiece that is Coffee Milk Blood – a visual showcase of the African woman through the concepts of Kahawa, Maziwa, and Damu.
“I put this work out in the hope that young girls and boys growing up in Africa can have a realistic and relatable example to look up to and dare to dream and take a risk. We need to tell our own stories and influence the change we seek in our lives and communities. There is so much more to tell about Africa than the usual stories of war, famine, floods and disease. ‘And until the lion itself learns how to write, the narrative will always glorify the hunter.’”(Vava Angwenyi, Coffee Milk Blood, 2020)
Determined to change the usual narrative of the coffee producer (one of pity/feeling sorry for them), Vava worked with the photographer Portia Mae to capture the most incredible shots of some of the women she works with in coffee to showcase what it looks like when they are empowered.
The word empowerment is one we use on a regular basis here at North Star – but what does it truly mean? The Oxford dictionary defines it as ‘the act of giving somebody the power or authority to do something.’ But does that truly resonate with us – does empowerment itself have to be an act of giving? An act of charity? This feels a little too like white saviourism to me. Surely to empower we have to listen and de-colonise empowerment.
“I have to say there is a paradox in the sense that if you empower or regenerate or you enter into a partnership that fundamentally affects the power balance, then it is like a parent and a child…if you want to get away from the colonial notion of empowerment, then that means you have to take really high risks, because you are enabling things to happen which may not seem to be exactly what you would have wanted. In other words, you can’t empower and secure regenerative actions and at the same time exercise control.” (Vava Angwenyi, Coffee Milk Blood, 2020)
It is safe to say this book has made its mark on us here and we consider this body of work as one of the most important developments in the coffee industry to date. It should be compulsory reading for everyone – not just those working in the industry but the home coffee lover too. If we are to do good work, it means a total shift in mindset to undo the opportunistic ways of working and forge a path for more respectful and symbiotic relationships with producers. I personally am weary of seeing the same stories and information told time and time again by roasters and coffee shops in developed economies.
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” (Vava Angwenyi, Coffee Milk Blood, 2020)
It is time for a different perspective to be highlighted – by continuing to just put forward one perspective, we are taking people’s dignity and ownership of their own narrative meaning we continue to see how we are different from others rather than showcasing our shared humanity.
It is my hope that this work serves as a guide to all of those working in supply chains such as coffee to encourage thought around how we represent the producer, how we portray them and how we become a valuable partner and ally to them. I want to take this opportunity to thank Vava for her courage in putting this work together and for doing what she does every day in the interest of a better tomorrow.