When thinking about coffee at origin, we think in terms of flavor profiles, processing methods and price. But coffee at origin is really about an industry made of people. Good people pulling together can make a great product. This article explores the efforts in one origin country, Kenya, to get the coffee to market and to us. They tend to work together well as a team, and the result is, as expected an outstanding selection of truly special coffees.
The Farmer and His Family
Meet Mr. Muchomba. He has had this coffee farm near Mt. Kenya for the last few decades. He moved his family here when he was able to buy the farm. He has 12 children and has managed to raise them with good values and an appreciation for hard work. Mr. Muchomba knows that he has done better than some of his neighbors because he studied about coffee, agronomy, and understands that quality coffee will garner a higher price at market. He is looked up to in his community as a leader. He remains the head of the community’s coffee cooperative even though he has tried to retire. He knows that the community needs him. His children have grown so he hires a lot of the work done on the farm and keeps a watchful eye.
A strong coffee community has a strong organization. In many of the communities this is a cooperative where a member owns a portion of the organizations profits based directly on the production volume they bring from their own farm. Most of the coffee will be mixed together rather than held as separate lots. To a Western observer, this may seem a little unfair where people like Mr. Muchomba whose coffee could be a lot more profitable by itself is mixed with all of his neighbors’ coffee to raise its overall value for the community. But values are a little different because the needs of the village outweigh the needs of any one individual farmer.
Cooperatives have additional responsibilities other than just collecting and processing cherries. One of the most important roles is the sharing of information on best practices for everything from seedling selection, pruning, selective picking and processing techniques. Another responsibility is finding buyers for the coffee. In Kenya this is done through the coffee auction. The path to the coffee auction can be tricky so help is needed from other entities.
Coffee Traders Association of Kenya
This group was formed by its members to assist the traders to build connections with cooperatives and to assist in the education of its members on how to deal with the different lots that are being brought forth from the fields. It is also a group that does some marketing to the consuming world that wants to build better relationships in Kenya with the various exporters. One of Mr. Muchomba’s sons went off to college and found himself back in coffee, but not at the farm. He now works in Nairobi as the Executive Director of the Kenya Coffee Traders Association. He takes his role extremely seriously because he knows that his efforts will build a stronger coffee supply from Kenya, and, by default, help his family achieve even more money for their lots. One way he helps cooperatives is building relationships between the farmers / cooperatives and the agents that can get their coffee into the Kenya Coffee Auction.
This person does not own any coffee to buy or to sell. Their function is to be the eyes and ears for their clients, the farmers, to know when to put their coffee onto the auction platform. They watch supply and demand and can suggest what price can be expected for the various grades of coffee. In the end the decision is up to the farmers themselves as to when to send the coffee, but a good marketing agent will work to get the highest price for their client.
Coffee sold from Kenya comes through a weekly auction in Nairobi. Marketing Agents bring the lot information to the auction. Samples are provided to exporters who might be interested. They have the opportunity to evaluate the coffee on behalf of the auction (and for themselves) to help the coffee realize a quality level when it is submitted to the auction. Information is shared among the limited number of exporters.
The auction is an electronic version of the open outcry auction. It is held in a room, but the participants have computer screens and bid electronically. The cooperatives, through the marketing agents, have set a floor price for the lots that the coffee will not sell below. This is a very strategic price and a good Marketing Agent will know both when to put the coffee into the auction and what the best floor price should be to get the highest final price.
Exporters at the auction bid on lots that they know a little bit about. They have tasted the coffee, know how much is available and where the coffee is coming from. They also know what orders they need to fill for their clients and go into the auction searching for the right mix of lots. Now they have to bid against the other exporters for the lots they need. This mechanism creates an even playing field for the Kenya coffee industry as it favors quality and is very transparent.
Coffee Research Foundation
In an effort to keep the quality of coffee high in Kenya, tax money is used to fund the Coffee Research Foundation. It is here that for decades research has been done on plant husbandry, pest eradication, disease control and process improvement. They share this information with anyone and everyone in an effort to increase quality, stability and health of the coffee crop.
African Fine Coffee Association
AFCA acts as marketing and promotion for African coffees. It also helps spread some best practices throughout the continent. For Kenya they assist by helping to supply experts from the outside world and share information. This is done in cooperation with both Kenyan government agencies as well as with groups such as USAID.
In the end, it takes a village to increase the value of coffee for Kenya. One of the most significant reasons that Mr. Muchomba can provide for his family and help his community is because his actual village is worldwide. The entire world village also wants him to be successful because if he is, we will continue to get great coffee from Kenya.
Rocky can be reached at rocky@INTLcoffeeConsulting.com