Our trip to Kenya and Tanzania in February seems like a lifetime ago but it has well and truly been brought back into the forefront of our minds with the arrival of the coffees we sourced during our visit there earlier in the year.
Whenever we complete an origin trip we will write up a report to share our findings with the rest of our team and wholesale customer base and now feels like a good time to share it with the lovely folk who visit our website and buy this coffee.
As many of you will be aware, our own journey into coffee started in the foothills of Mt Kenya in the region of Nyeri, Central Province in 2011. We spent three months in this region shadowing smallholder coffee producers and interviewing them about their experiences of working within the coffee supply chain, specifically with regards to Fairtrade certification. This experience showcased the many hands involved in the supply chain alongside the challenges faced by smallholder coffee producers in getting their crop to market and accessing a fair price. It was on this basis that North Star Coffee Roasters was established in 2013 with the aim of bettering the quality of life of those producing the coffee we buy.
There are certain coffee origins where this aim is more simple to achieve due to the level of traceability we are able to get in the supply chain. For example, our Guatemalan coffees come to us from Finca La Bolsa which is a large estate owned by the Vides family whom we are able to trade fairly directly with. Kenya is a totally different model for a number of reasons, the first being that the majority of the country’s coffee is produced by smallholder farmers (of which there are around 700,000 in the country) – many of which have just a quarter of a hectare to two hectares of land. This means a single producer is only able to produce around a quarter to half a sack of coffee which is obviously not enough to export. This has resulted in the formation of hundreds of cooperatives across the country which often service thousands of smallholder farmers meaning what we end up buying is a blend of coffee from neighbouring producers across a region. This does not impact the quality of the coffee from Kenya, if anything the best lots tend to come from the smallholder coops. What it does mean though is that the number of people within the supply chain increases dramatically from looking like this:
To this day, Kenyan coffee is sold on a traditional auction system that came into effect in the 1930s. The way the legislation has developed with regards to licensing has made it pretty difficult for Kenyan companies to export their country’s coffee – the market has been dominated by British or European owned trading houses. Whilst they have done an excellent job in marketing the coffee of Kenya to foreign buyers, the transfer of funds back to the producer has become a little cloudy.
How does it work?
If you are a smallholder coffee producer in Kenya, you generally won’t have your own processing facilities due to the small volume of cherries produced. You therefore harvest your coffee cherries with your family and are able to choose which washing station you would like to deliver to. This can depend on a number of factors such as locality, the quality of cherry you have on that particular day, whether a station is accepting cherries that day etc. Once you have delivered your cherry, you will be issued with a receipt to say how much was delivered and that cherry will be added to the other lots delivered that day. You will then receive a price for the weight of cherry delivered and then usually a second payment once the coffee has sold dependent on the final price achieved.
From the point of cherry delivery, that coffee is then owned by the cooperative society – in the case of our newly landed coffee this would be the Ruchu Farmers Cooperative Society. The coop will then choose which marketing agent they would like to appoint to help them sell the coffee. It is the role of the marketing agent to look after the processed parchment coffee until the point of sale, working to achieve the highest possible price for the coop either through the national auction or directly to a buyer. The issue with this system is that contracts with marketing agents are only open for a year, after that point the coop is free to choose another agent to work with for the next year which makes it challenging to form any stable relationships with cooperatives year on year as you just might not be able to get hold of their coffee. That, combined with changing weather patterns over recent years resulting in a smaller supply of high quality lots, has really driven up the price paid for Kenyan coffees. Marketing agents tend to hold onto the coffee until they have gained a sense of how much interest there is and will then only release the pricing at the point the buyer is determined to purchase it. This can be very effective for the cooperatives but how positive it is in the long term remains an unanswered question due to the lack of relationship in place between the coop and the final buyer.
North Star and Kenyan Coffee
After a few years of working in this manner, we became frustrated with this system which creates further uncertainty around how much was actually making it back to the smallholder producer and what benefit they were getting from working with the coops beyond payment for their crop. Kenyan coffee farmers (and particularly women) really struggle with access to land due to inheritance laws and competition from developers who are buying up a lot of estates to build gated communities. The result is that farmers are unable to progress what they are able to do with regards to yield unless they receive some assistance getting more out of the coffee they do have. Dependence on coffee can also be an issue and income diversification should be more encouraged to increase resilience in the face of climate change.
In line with our ethical procurement policy, we wanted to have more impact with our Kenyan sourcing and started to seek out exporters who were working differently to bypass the restrictive nature of traditional trading to try and bring about more certainty for both the producer and the buyer. One such company is Vava Coffees, set up and run by Vava Angwenyi who we first met with in 2017 at Re:Co Syposium – she was there to present on gender equity and female empowerment in the coffee industry.
Vava grew up in Kenya before studying law in Canada where she started to see her country’s coffee popping up in shops and being sold at a premium reflective of the high quality. She became frustrated at the distribution of money from that cup of coffee back to the farmer and felt compelled to help change this situation for her fellow country men and women. She therefore defied the wishes of her parents and turned her back on a potential law career in the west to return to Kenya and start a career in coffee.
She has now worked with over 30,000 farmers helping to seek out a market for their coffee. In 2018, she co-founded the initiative Gente del Futuro in partnership with APK (Africa Plantations Kilimanjaro) to help young people either working in coffee or with parents who are coffee farmers to realise the potential they have when considering a role in the coffee industry. For so many young people today, farming coffee is not an attractive profession to go into – there is too much uncertainty and volatility both in the market and in the environment to guarantee a stable income, let alone a profit. GDF aims to invest in the skillset of these young people (many of whom are women) to help them access more opportunities in the industry, such as sensory skills and agronomy training. This, in our eyes, is an extremely valuable program given the fact most children of coffee farmers are abandoning their rural roots in favour of pursuing jobs in the city, which sadly can often spiral them into a more detrimental situation.
So, after a year or so of discussing how we might be able to work together, we made her the focus of our trip there in February to get a sense of what she was doing. During our time together, there was a lot of opportunity to talk thanks to the 7 hour car journeys every day visiting various producers in Meru and finally across the border in Tanzania! We were there not only to try and hunt down some coffee for the season ahead but also to donate our time in running sensory workshops for some smallholder farmers who had expressed an interest in the work being done by GDF.
Vava is searching for a method of purchasing more directly so she can forge longer lasting partnerships – one way of achieving this is to revisit the smaller estate producers who are producing some good coffees on larger parcels of land in regions that are not as well recognised for the production of coffee. Our first visit was to Mutai, owner of ‘De Man’ (yep…de man) in Meru country – a farm comprising of 10,000 trees and a small micro wet mill. Mutai was working in a different manner to most other examples of Kenyan coffee production we had seen before in the sense he was also processing his cherries to parchment level which means he is able to access a higher proportion of the price paid. Whilst he is not currently producing the best scoring coffee we have ever tasted, his commitment to improvement was clear and we loved the time we spent with him. Mutai is also a teacher and he is trying to garner support from his local farming neighbours to support Vava in her efforts to create a more stable supply. He was instrumental in bringing together his neighbouring farmers to get them involved in the sensory classes I ran – we hosted one in the administrative building on his farm and I was so happy to see ten or so people attending, some of whom had never even tasted Kenyan coffee before! I put on some examples of basic tastes including sour, sweet and bitter, to try and demonstrate the structure of the coffee that buyers tend to look for. We also spent time going through some Le Nez de Café aromas to display the varied range of aromatics that coffee can hold. Finally, we finished by tasting some of the coffees I had brought with me from different countries – there was our Brazil, Guatemala and Rwanda natural processed coffees which were very effective in showing the difference between process and region and in highlighting the characteristics that Kenyan coffees are so highly prized for.
Mutai was very supportive of this sort of programme and is extremely invested in empowering young people in coffee given that he intends to pass on his land to his three daughters. He was a progressive and forward thinking man and we would love to partner with him more closely as his coffee develops over the coming years. For this year, we simply purchased what he had left from his harvest as a marker of our intent to work with him – there were only 8 bags which we will likely include in our seasonal blend Czar St this time but we hope to purchase more from him in the coming years that we can showcase as a single origin.
For our single origin Kenyan this year, we have purchased a lot from the Ruchu coop through Vava Coffees and have committed a donation of £1 from every bag to the GDF initiative which will support coffee scholarships for young people in Kenya and Tanzania – allowing them to experience different parts of the coffee supply chain and helping to stop the marginalisation of the smallholder coffee producer.
This approach is very much part of our overall business aims to increase the impact we are able to have amongst the producing communities we work within and we are so delighted to have had the chance to meet with Vava, a woman committed to turning the situation around in her home country.
You will see our bags are being sold as a co-branded project in line with Vava Coffees this year to try and showcase this unique partnership, please do get in touch with us should you have any further questions about how we are working here and we hope you enjoy the coffee which not only tastes good, but, with your help, does good too!