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By: Ollie Sears 19 July 2022
Ollie recently visited Kenya on an explorative trip to meet the producers we are delighted to work alongside.
Mr Sears began in his trip in Lamu, in the archipelago off the eastern coast of Kenya where he carried out training with our dear friend Vava Angwenyi for the Gente Del Futuro (GDF) Programme, a cross cultural training scheme for young people from different backgrounds. He then travelled to farms in Meru and Trans-Nzoia which are other regions we purchase coffee from.
The Gente de Futuro Programme – Lamu, Kenya
Vava (of Vava Coffee Kenya) is now on track to run the next iteration of her Gente de Futuro (GDF) programme. The current work is set to successfully open a cafe and learning institution in the town of Lamu, in the archipelago off the eastern coast of Kenya.
The site will act as a window or gateway into the specialty coffee industry from seed to cup. There will be an on-site roasting operation and a full espresso service, but too a range of manually brewed filter coffees available as hot drinks, cold brews and iced coffees. A food menu will accompany, and it’s situated in the old town with a beautiful garden area to the site too. There is currently nothing of the sort on the island, so it’s a big step to introduce something of this nature to the locals and the tourist scene in the area.
To date we have financially contributed to the GDF programme, in addition to having Holly run some epic sensory skills training for producers in 2019 out in coffee regions. But now, the programme switching into this new café phase suggested that we could offer a different type of support, one that we are more regularly dishing out in the UK to baristas and students before they join a professional café team!
Ollie ran course content from the SCA Brewing module alongside Amilka Lee (shout out to Amilka and his amazing ways) and they managed to get through most of the theory and practical skill sessions from the Foundation and Intermediate levels in a tiring 2 day course.
Students of the GDF programme were local to Lamu and most were educated and brought up on the island, and their training with us formed part of an extensive, diverse programme covering brewing, barista skills, hospitality skills, green coffee science and even roasting skills. It was an honour to be part of it all, and we’re excited to head back in future to see the development and progression into the different disciplines that students will take!
Then what? Farm visits of course!
Once we had finished the skills training in Lamu with the GDF students, we began the next stage of the trip, the long haul journeys to Kenya’s prized coffee regions. First on the list was Meru County, known for its production of not only coffee, but fruit, vegetables maize and sugar cane too. Second on the list was the Trans-Nzoia region bordering Uganda, lesser known by the UK coffee enthusiasts.
Our agenda in Meru was a simple one – a full day spent with Mutai Kinyua and his team. He’s our legendary partner in Meru, generally well known by our wholesale coffee shop clients as the genius behind our naturally processed Kenyan coffee from the 2021/22 harvest. It was – and remains to be – one of the rare few naturally processed coffees to leave this region. It’s safe to say Ollie was ecstatic about finally meeting Mutai and had no end of questions for him and his team.
Deman Estate with Mutai Kinyua
It’s hard to know where to start with a recap of our day with Mutai. The video and photo content below will provide you the essential viewing of his operations, as it can’t be said how necessary it is to see and feel a farming system of this nature. Mutai has been farming with agroforestry (regenerative agriculture) principles for 20 years since taking on the farm, and first undertook a transition from traditional agriculture processes. What we mean by that is he essentially had to re-establish and revitalise an ecosystem that had been accustomed to heavy fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide use. Now, the farm is more of a tropical paradise, no longer tainted by widespread chemical use but instead filled with biodiversity – that goes for the coffee trees, shrubs, weeds, insects, nut trees and fruit trees.
Hols and Krag had already met Mutai in 2019, and we’ve been working alongside him ever since Vava introduced us all to his team’s fabulous work. Notably, Mutai has a unique and diligent method of production at his two locations in Meru County, and is one of the best examples we can point to of an owner creating an equitable distribution of wealth in the coffee chain, while also showcasing this all-important regenerative agriculture system.
Mutai has had loyal staff for over 10 years, breaking the traditional cycle of having seasonal workers in picking and processing. Long-serving members of the picking and processing teams that we spoke to acknowledged that it felt majorly improved working alongside Mutai rather than within other nearby farms, and they felt valued – it turns out he pays 4 x the market rate for labour to value his staff and incentivise staying the cause of working in regenerative agriculture.
We started off with a long chat about how he ended up being the craziest farmer in town, as nobody else in the area seemed to take to the idea of producing natural or honey process coffees from their operations. Mutai saw value in differing from standard Kenyan processing, and went ahead taking the bold risk! As we all know from the UK side of things, it paid off tremendously!
We continued right over to see processing in action as we began discussing his next plans, and immediately got to see the wet mill in action. As cherries flowed down into the pulping machine for de-pulping, Mutai explained to us that even for the naturally processed coffees, they will still ‘wash’ and sort the cherries prior to drying them using the wet mill. So effectively all coffee cherries are to some extent cleaned prior to processing or drying on the farm, regardless of the end goal. After swiftly downing all of our water in the heat like amateurs, we were able to refill bottles immediately from this part of the farm with the water supplying the wet mill, as it turns out they are supplied by a local spring with fabulous naturally filtered water!?! So, we were able to siphon some of that before it cascaded over the freshly harvested produce…
Continuing our tour took us round to the harvesting in process, where we found the 4000 coffee trees amongst the tall shade trees, shrubs, grasses and fruit trees. We met some of the team that are required to pick coffee from the beautiful farm / forest. We asked them all about their work and time working with Mutai. They were singing his praises when he was out of earshot, which is a good sign, and they even taught us how they selectively pick from the trees by ripeness of cherry according to colours on display!
Trees on the Deman Estate have a crop cycle every 7-12 years depending on variety, and Mutai demonstrated how avoiding the uprooting of trees at the 7-12 year mark has helped him maintain soil health over time. Instead of taking a lower yielding tree out of the soil and planting a newer, younger tree in its spot, Mutai and the team select trees to cut down to a stump (strategically placing the cut of it by the way) which stimulates the tree regrowing, renewing it entirely into a stronger and hardier unit. It’s fascinating, and helps the farm’s overall resilience by leaving the healthy root network intact over time. This was just one of the many wise ways of Mutai and the team revitalising and regenerating the ecosystem on the estate, particularly important for long-term health of the business in the 20+ years of operations that Mutai has seen to date.
The next challenge on the Deman Estate is a little weather resilience project, affecting the drying of coffee. If you saw our content on the El Salvador Chelazos infrastructure project, you may be aware of the covered drying beds we had constructed with Caravela and Maria Zoila Piñeda in La Palma. Mutai has similar raised drying beds, but no covers over the top of them available as yet.
We wandered around the drying area and discussed the feasibility of installing some hardy translucent covers into the operation, allowing the drying team to filter sunlight and modulate temperature or humidity in the drying space (in line with the weather on the farm). If this is a little unfamiliar, think of it as if you were drying your clothes at home. Shielding clothes on the line from rain is a big priority, but also getting adequate air flow / wind exposure is an important factor. This is no different with coffee, but with the additional criteria of ideally wanting to have some control over how direct and intense the sun exposure is in the drying area.
Safe to say that sorting is a skill to develop in itself, as we all found out pretty swiftly… Walking through the density of fruit trees, deepening our understanding of the transformative style of farming Mutai has introduced, and getting to see first-hand the manual nature of sorting cherries was a way to round off the day’s trip. Watching a strong team work and discussing with Mutai how valuable those in between steps are to ta resilient, sustainable, reliable coffee value chain reinforced why we buy in the way that we do; valuing the people along the supply chain equitably and reflecting that in our behaviour at each buying decision for our Kenyan coffee is integral to our impact with each chain we are connected to.
Kimoso Estate with Ibrahim
It can’t be understated how distant that first trip with Mutai felt from our next visit, with such a distance, full of scenery and diverse landscapes separating Meru County and Trans-Nzoia. Our second visit took us up to a town called Endebess to meet Ibrahim from the Kimoso estate. It might have been a 10hr stretch to get there, but the sights were well worth it along the way. The towering Mt. Elgon was on the horizon and the maize production in the region felt as vast as the mountain was towering. Not to mention the occasional giraffe and rhino just wandering in the lands adjacent to the car en route…
Trans-Nzoia is known as the most fertile land in Kenya, and the region provides much of the country’s food crop. You get one harvest per year of coffee, and at Kimoso, you can already feel the quality of it in the coffee area, with presence of shrubs and bushes, weeds and grasses thriving amongst the coffee trees. Another great example of minimal intervention in the land creating phenomenal results in the cup.
So where do we start? You might know this coffee for its distinctive rose floral note, having a honeyed texture and showing off a light raspberry acidity in our Explore range. We’re pleased to say that the farm is as diverse as its flavour profile.
At Kimoso there are various areas farming coffee, maize and sugar cane. In the immediate area surrounding the coffee trees, we found beans and nuts, planted to help maintain nitrogen levels in the soil. The farm manager Ibrahim was kind enough to run us a full tour through the coffee area.
We learned from Ibrahim that they host around 8000 trees, predominantly Ruiru and Batian (currently high-yielding varieties for this region). They have recently purchased some fresh little Batian seedlings from the local coffee research centre, which we saw being nursed in the shade over by the house. They’ll be moved and planted after a month of pampering, where they might finally escape the company of the farm’s chickens, who didn’t seem to mind trudging all over the young plants during their patrols
They must to water the seedlings regularly and add a little fertiliser before moving them to plant, where they’ll enter the farm’s 10 year crop cycle before being cut to a stump to stimulate re-growth (this practice is in place on Mutai’s farm too!)
What about the workforce? Well here in Endebess there are an abundance of local workers who participate in work shared across local farms to fill their hours. For seasonal work of picking and processing, transport is arranged to and from the main town each morning and evening. For the 8000 trees here they require a team of around 30 pickers to get the job done, so it’s a fairly large staffing unit much like we saw at the Deman Estate with Mutai.
What we found extremely impressive at Kimoso was the manual nature of processing, but also the adaptation of it to suit weather. They use a manual pulping machine for removing cherries from the coffee seeds, and portable beds that can be folded and moved to control sunlight capture and avoid excessive wind during coffee drying. Ibrahim was quick to let us know that climate change’s effect on ambient temperature at the estate has really shortened drying times, as Mutai had mentioned too. Ibrahim described that it can now take only 10 days for the washed coffee parchment to get dried to the standard 12% moisture level before it is ready for milling or storage. That drying process apparently used to take 15 days on the farm!
So drying is shorter in the heat, but so too is the supply of water in such heat. Ibrahim outlined that they now need to use water pumps to increase water access on the farm due to the shortening rains in the area. Local farmers are permitted to top up from the river nearby, and so the farm is relatively climate resilient for now. Their instances of disease in plants and pests have been minimal at these times fortunately, which points to good choices of shrubbery and ‘distracting’ plants they’ve left around the coffee area which many bugs prefer. But, much like we saw in Meru, the only pesky one is the little leaf mining melli bug, which Kenyan coffee falls victim to regularly nowadays. However, the little bugs don’t quite appreciate the quality of coffee they’re missing out on, and seem to only go for the leaves and not the juicy cherries…
We finished up at Kimoso slightly earlier than we did with Mutai as they have only one coffee farming section, so a tour runs a little quicker. After a quick piccy and a North Star t-shirt handover to Ibrahim (well deserved for certain), the journey began to our third and slightly more mysterious stop…
Meeting Mr. Harry Tsyamba at the Kiseto Estate, Mt. Elgon, Kitale
Ok, so the final stop on the tour took us to a more reasonable distance of 12-15km from Kimoso. Still in Kitale and in view of Mt. Elgon, we travelled with Ibrahim most of the way to the Kiseto Estate to meet with Harry Tsyamba and his family – someone that even Vava had not yet met face-to-face despite some contact by phone prior to our arrangement of the visit. Little did we know we’d see yet another incredible agroforestry project in action, but perhaps more impressive was the story and vision behind Harry’s work with the team there!
Upon arrival we were approaching dusk and light was getting lower, but we were still greeted and welcomed by the farm team and family from the house on the land. To our left before turning into the estate were the family’s tea plants, where the locally important and in-country favourite of Kenyan tea hails from. But as we entered, it was clear that this farm was a long-time practice of regenerative agriculture from the similarity of it to Mutai’s layout – slightly wilder than the word ‘farm’ conjures up in your head, but with good reason. Towering over us were fruit trees, avocados hanging, macadamia nut trees and other shade trees to bring biodiversity into the farm area. Nearby the coffee area we could see the sugar cane production, maize production and the tea trees aforementioned. It was clear that this is no beginner’s farm!
It didn’t take long for us to realise the passion and vision in Harry’s work on the farm. He recounted the story of coming into ownership of the farm to us, which was a one-of-a-kind story for all of us. The farm’s previous owner was a British man who fell ill many years ago. Harry worked many years for that man and the Kiseto estate was then actually gifted to Harry, as a result of his dedication and hard work on the land. At the same time that sovereignty returned to Kenya following the British rule, Harry was rewarded ownership over the Kiseto estate! Dedication to the farm and its health literally won Harry the opportunity to own it, and Harry began to progress the farm to become more efficient and productive in its own natural way, through the ecological benefits of agroforestry. To put this into perspective, Harry is now over 80 years old – he had taught himself biology, agronomy and ecosystem management through the use of books and just local referral to more reading and good practice, effectively being signposted by the coffee research centre to a small extent as time went on and information transfer shifted in the field of agriculture. To all of us visiting, it was unprecedented levels of autonomous, proactive work dedicated to the ecosystem he worked within.
Harry harbours multiple varieties of Arabica on the farm, totalling some 3000 trees: Ruiru, Batian, SL28, SL34 and even some Blue Mountain variety trees. At Kiseto the family spoke of their yield being at or around 37 bags from the 3000 trees, but Harry was quick to enlighten us that he had calculated a potential of 43 bags with further improvements to the infrastructure on site (namely a larger washing station capacity and more drying beds) even accounting for changes that would occur with the 10-year crop cycle predicted for the varieties in place. We asked him of any signs of struggle against climate change, as temperatures seem to have affected most estates and their productive nature. Harry echoed Mutai and Ibrahim in that drying coffee happens much quicker, and average ambient temperatures are slightly higher on the estate than in years gone by. The team did point out that over the years, prevalence of butterflies and chameleons is lower than before in the Kitale region, with declining natural habitats for them as the biodiversity in the region suffers due to over-farming or monocropping.
An interesting thought was that Harry maintained a stance that the ecosystem was more self-preserving and resilient than neighbouring farms, due to the lack of reliance on pesticide, herbicide or fertiliser. Though maximum yield occasionally dropped compared to neighbouring farms, Harry maintained that the average yearly output of the farm was less volatile with the agroforestry system in place at Kiseto, and with a far lower usage of any inputs. Not using fertilisers, chemicals in the soil or herbicides/pesticides means much less input costs into the farming system fior Harry and the team, and less water needed year round than a comparative size farm under a non-organic system – this is predominantly because the soil system retains water far better within itself, and less wastage or run-off is experienced too.
So late in the day, yet all of us were hanging on Harry’s every word as we sat discussing the farm’s journey through this organic, natural system of agriculture that he’s pioneered without much external guidance. It was fascinating to see such a progressive ecological standpoint from an older farmer, and the charismatic vision of continuing progress too. The next challenges will be to cover drying beds and to expand the capacity of the farm’s washed processing infrastructure. They currently process coffee manually and the well-renowned washed and soaked aka Kenya process. Harry is yet to feel confident experimenting with alternative processing due to lack of capacity for a dry mill and lack of funding for larger de-pulping and washing equipment (an addition to what we call the wet mill). Cleaning and sorting cherries prior to washing or drying is something that cannot yet to be easily done in a reasonable time frame on the farm, and the team would benefit from a little help in that direction as far as we were made aware. Access to water for such a task is not too much of an issue, with the rivers flowing out into the Indian Ocean being situated fairly nearby, it’s simply the infrastructure at this stage, much like we found in Finca Margarita with Maria’s farming system in La Palma, El Salvador.
The Kiseto estate coffee is currently blended with nearby farmers’ produce at the local exchange, and after tasting it we thought this to be somewhat inappropriate. Maybe we were biased, but the coffee we tasted with the team inside the farmhouse was phenomenal. Lit was beautifully complex and rich we tried it via Harry’s own brewing method, but too with our own Aeropress, showing nuances of red fruit and apricot in the cup. With a long, sweet aftertaste and not even coming from a production roast on our Loring, we thought it have such potential for future use, and certainly felt it merited being purveyed as a single origin coffee at the very least. So subject to sampling, we could well be showing off some of Harry’s coffee in the next round of Kenyan crop in the North Star roastery!
What a way to end the trip with an unbelievable account of the coffee farming world from a vastly experienced farmer in the Trans-Nzoia region. With only the trip back to Nairobi left to do, we ended the farm tour by caffeinating ourselves far too late in the evening in that delectable coffee tasting, and Vava was able to grab some samples of parchment from Harry to roast and grade to continue the conversation further. We bid goodbye to his team and family and attempted to make our way back to the hotel in the dark – no easy feat no matter how experienced the driver is!
The Kiseto estate visit marked the end of our trip, and evolved the conversation of buying for the next harvest. It won’t be long before the next shipment of coffee arrives with us. Firstly we’ll see coffee hailing from visit number one, from Deman Estate aka the famous Mutai Kinyua and his team in Meru County. Secondly, we’ll find coffee arriving from Rianjagi washing station, and thirdly we’ll find coffees from Trans-Nzoia and that Northern region dropping in around October time. Keep your eyes peeled for these popping up on our online shop, our social media, our B2B portal and generally around our favourite spots for coffee across the UK. Kenyan coffee will form a significantly tasty part of our Base range for espresso, now that our good friend Mutai is continuing the processing journey into honey process and natural process options. However, as you might be more accustomed to seeing, the Kenyan coffees from these visits – and those conducted by Hols and Krag back in 2019 – will too be found in the Explore range, where they’ll characterise that range’s diverse and distinctive feel with uniquely bright, tropical, almost cola-like profiles that no other origin can provide us.