If you visit many coffee roasters in Europe, you will see many jute bags with ‘32cup’ written on them. 32cup has changed its name to Sucafina Specialty but it is still one of the major importers in Europe. Kenyacof, a sister company of Sucafina Specialty, is a marketing agent that has a dry mill and an exporter that serves as a link between smallholders in Kenya and roasters. Kenyacof owns a dry mill called Kahawa Bora, a hub for smallholders and cooperatives and the amount smallholders can produce in Kenya is less than 50 bags of parchments. Such a small amount of lots were mixed and integrated into the larger lot in the past but Kahawa Bora manages micro lots from a single bag to ensure traceability.
We thought that we could gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in Kenya by comparing and contrasting our interaction with Kenyacof and Rockbern at the same time. Kenyacof is a multinational company and Rockbern continues operation in Kenya from their grandfather’s generation.
How does each come to terms with coffee production in Kenya?
Kenyacof’s Problem Solving
Mette-Marie (known as Mia), the president of the company, and Daniel who is in charge of trading, are the two people who spent time with us in Kenya this time. Mia and Daniel used to be colleagues at Dormans, a well-known coffee exporter in Kenya. Two years after Mia moved to Kenyacof, Daniel followed her and also started working at Kenyacof. Dormans was a great company to work for with a long history but the two saw the potential in Kenyacof revolutionizing the industry. I spoke with Daniel to get to know him over a cup of coffee in the beautiful office at Kenyacof.
Daniel states, “Kenyacof was founded in 2014 and when we started as a marketing agency and started to operate a dry mill in 2017, we started to focus on smallholders.”
“As you may know, coffee production in Kenya has been declining and prices have been rising. Climate change is one of the reasons for it but urbanization is becoming a serious problem in Kenya. A Belgian company used to have seven farms in Kiambu province but there are only three farms left. There was a land reform in Zimbabwe to redistribute land owned by whites to blacks in 2000 and they thought that something similar might happen in Kenya, so they started selling off farms.”
The coffee production area and the capital Nairobi are relatively close to each other in Kenya about a two-hour drive away from each other. In Kenya, where the economy is growing rapidly, agriculture is being threatened for being outdated and is considered low productivity.
Daniel states, “We use technology so that we can increase coffee production in Kenya. For example, we have developed a soil analysis gadget called the coffee gun to find out what nutrients are lacking in the soil. You can visit a farm, take a soil sample with the coffee gun, and download the results to your laptop via Bluetooth, giving the producers information on what nutrients to provide and when to provide them. We also have a training place called the Farmer’s Hub where we give lectures on how to care for coffee trees. We also place great importance on transparency. After producers hand over their coffee to us, we send SMS messages to them with information on how it was processed, whether it was graded AA or AB, and how much money they can make.”
In response to the decline in production, Kenyacof seems to be focusing on increasing the productivity of the remaining farms. It seems to be a very rational choice.
The Kenyacof Way
What is the difference between Rockbern and Kenyacof? I asked Daniel directly.
Daniel states, “We act as a marketing agent, invest in smallholders and work with them. Smallholders in Kenya are hungry and if we pay a high price for a good quality coffee in the previous year, they will demand the same price this year even though the quality is lower than the previous year. We need to analyze the quality and manage it well. Rockbern doesn’t have a marketing agent or a dry mill, so we deal directly with the producers.”
“For example, let’s say you said you want antelope. The antelope is already in the cage in our company but Rockbern has to go out into the savanna to look for it, so there is a difference.”
Both companies are trying to solve the same problem but each company’s approach is quite different. The relationship between Rockbern and the producers is that of business partners, offering advice and opportunities, but not intervening with producers too deeply. For example, Rockbern doesn’t mind producers selling their coffee to non-Rockbern exporters. Kenyacof invests in the producers and uses technology to encourage them to improve quality. In other words, Kenyacof conducts business in a way that encompasses the producers, which is the major difference between the two companies. Rockbern values the individuality and independence of the producers and allows for direct trade in the literal sense of the word, but it may take some time to solve the problem. Kenyacof works practically towards quality improvement and social issues, but it may be a little more difficult for producers to work autonomously.
We made an appointment with Mette-Marie (Mia) the next day and took our time so that we could listen to her story. She is a European who lives in Kenya and is at the forefront of Kenya’s specialty coffee industry and she’s a prominent figure in the global coffee industry.
Mia states, “When I was a student in Norway, I worked as a barista at a café called Kaffa which was 21 years ago. After that, I worked as a green coffee buyer for roasters in San Francisco and Canada. Then, the opportunity to work at Dormans came up and I really fell in love with Kenya. That’s why I’m still here.”
“It was not difficult for me to move from Norway to Kenya because the time difference between them is just two hours and the flight time is not too long. My husband was born in Zambia in Africa, raised in Kenya, and he is a Caucasian and speaks Swahili very well. Living in Kenya can be frustrating at times, but when I am exposed to the social issues in Kenya, I feel the passion to want to do something about it. If I lived anywhere else, it would be much more boring, quieter, and less challenging. I am really enjoying my life here.”
“There are so many different tasks to perform here. One day I’m running around the farm and the next day I’m having Zoom meetings in my office. When I was back in Europe, I really missed this kind of life. In Europe, it was the same thing every day. I wake up in the morning, go to the office, go home, and the next day is the repetition of that. I live on a coffee farm now and I get to see different scenes at the farm every day.”
Working at Kenyacof
After falling in love with Kenya, Mia decided to leave Dormans and joined Kenyacof.
Mia states, “Kenyacof has a small team and it felt like the right size for me. I like working with coffee and nature very much and I’ve been interested in smallholders since I worked at Dormans. When I feel the connection between smallholders and micro roasters, I know that I am doing the right job and doing the right thing right.”
“Our job is to set up a supply chain so that any small producers can access the international coffee market. We process the coffee even if we only have one bag of coffee as long as the quality of the coffee is high. We can do this because we own a dry mill and we believe that this is the future of coffee. Kenya can no longer compete in the specialty coffee market because of its low production and high prices. I believe that evaluating lot of each smallholder and distributing them as micro lot will surely become Kenya’s strength. Japanese buyers tend to buy from large companies with established brands and our model has not yet attracted much attention, so TYPICA will be a good opportunity for us.”
Hundreds of lots of coffee are cupped each day at Kenyacof. We observed the cupping sessions and were speechless at the enormous number of lots. The cupper continued cupping with the same matter-of-fact movements. An assistant stood next to him and wrote down the comments the cupper made. Among the cups included a natural and an anaerobic micro lot that are rare in Kenya. These will be appreciated around the world as a unique lot and it will be distributed as a rare coffee with the story of the producers attached.
Mia also touched upon the social issues in Kenya.
“The birthrate is declining in Kenya and 75 percent of the population is under the age of 35. Soon, there will be a shortage of jobs, which will trigger a major social problem. Our generation needs to be ready to invest in new businesses to create jobs. In the coffee industry, many of Kenya’s farms were run by people who moved here in the 1960s but they are getting older and there is no one to take over the business. Many of the younger generations want to work in the city and we want to attract the younger generations to farming by showing them it is not a simple job of just producing coffee, but it is a job that they can actively involve with the business and build relationships with overseas buyers.
What is the goal of Kenyacof as a multinational company?
Mia states, “As a multinational company, Kenyacof’s goal is to become the leading coffee company focused on sustainability. Currently, Kenya’s specialty coffee accounts for about 10% of our total production, and we aim to increase this to 25% by 2025. This is not a goal but our concrete plan.”
By talking to two contrasting companies, Kenyacof and Rockbern, who are both working towards the same goal, we feel we are getting a little closer to understanding the reality of Kenya. Many different contrasts exist between self-reliance and leadership, between people and technology, and between different ways of solving problems. While the importance of sustainability is being emphasized recently, no one has yet to have a clear answer as to what is best or what will happen in the future and it is also up to you what you choose.