Our very own Kat Stauffer had the pleasure of interviewing Francis from Jamii Coffee to talk about the changes and impact Jamii Coffee is wanting to bring to the people of Kenya through the revitalization of the Kenyan coffee industry. 

Francis, tell me a bit about yourself and how you became interested and further passionate about the coffee sector in Kenya and thus creating Jamii Coffee.

I will share the short version. I was raised in an agricultural community in a town called Molo located in the Rift Valley province of Kenya. All I wanted was to be an agronomist, to help farmers improve yields and better crop management. I would eventually abandon this dream to pursue white-collar employment. My passion in agriculture would come back through coffee. In 2008, I visited Caravan to see Paul, who is my cousin through marriage. While I was waiting for him at the reception area, I noticed a map that showed countries that Caravan sourced its coffee from, but Kenya was not among them.

I asked myself, back home we pride in producing the best coffee in the whole world, but it is not roasted here? I had long talks with Paul and Pete. They both shared their challenges with Kenyan coffee. There was a huge disconnect between the two most important parties in the trade of coffee. On one side is a Kenyan farmer uprooting his coffee due to low pay and on the other is a roaster who loves Kenyan coffee but lacks transparency and traceability of the coffee. I made it my mission to fix the disconnect. I felt I had to do something to empower both the Roaster and the Farmer. Luckily, I was in Oregon, where there so many discerning coffee drinkers and coffee shops. I was on a fast lane learning curve of the specialty coffee market. I realized the impact that coffee has on communities.  

Jamii Coffee was founded to positively impact lives through the trade of coffee by changing the perception of Kenyan coffee associated with transparency and traceability. The right of the Kenyan African to grow coffee was earned not given, the failure of coffee is a failure of the rights that a lot of people died fighting for. There is no doubt in my mind that if coffee goes, Kenya goes down with it. Economically, Coffee employs 30% of Kenyans directly and indirectly. It used to be the #1 export and now it is #5.

What happened after you saw a need for “a different way of doing things” in regard to working with Kenyan Coffee Farms and Families?

The disconnect made me decide to build a system from scratch. It was during my research that I realized how difficult it is to get Kenyan coffee through the already established channel. Furthermore, I was not allowed to have direct communication with the farmers. During my visit to Kenya in 2016, you could see the suspicion from people that I met. I once went to visit a facility owned by a major player in the coffee market in Kenya and I was not allowed beyond the gate.

The manager came to the gate and we held an informal meeting and he wished us well. I held a lot of meetings with farmers and it is what one woman told me that stuck, she said, “If I ever find a way… she would go to church to tell other farmers of the great news.” I guess I had my work cut out from there on. I decided that I did not just want to bring in coffee, I wanted to bring in coffee that had an impact, not only to the farmers and their families but also to the Roaster. I think the Oregon farm to table ideal had a role to play in this thinking.

I’ve been told that one issue Kenyan coffee farmers face is not knowing the quality of the crop they produce, which has an effect on the price they are willing to sell their harvest for. Is this true and can you elaborate more for me on this important piece?

For correction, the farmer knows the quality of crop they are producing but where the farmer is blind is the cup quality. Jamii Coffee is exploring ways to sensitize farmers on the relationship between the two. The issue has its roots in the colonial times. Laws and regulations were put in place to make ensure that Africans did not roast coffee or drink coffee. Most Kenyans are tea drinkers by design. My dad tells me of a myth that coffee leads to heart and lung disease. This has continued to the modern times, considering that the average age of a Kenyan farmer is 65 years old. On the issue of pricing, the farmer is reliant on the Coffee Auction prices

Your tagline is “If we can’t touch the farmer, we don’t touch the coffee”. I LOVE THIS! How many farms are you currently working with?   

The coffee I am bringing in is from one farmer (Simon Nyaga of Njemu Farm) and Tambaya wet mill. The Tambaya coffee was produced by 920 small scale farmers. Because of our social capital and traceability system, we can provide data on the number of cherries each of the 920 small-scale farmers produced. Never in my life did I ever imagine touching the lives of that many people. We are planning to organically increase the number of individual farmers we work with as we get more resources and establish ourselves. We have individual farmers willing to join us and we are waiting for the opportune moment to bring them in.

Let’s talk Peaberry. From the 2 bag purchase Caravan made recently, what is the labor like with a strictly peaberry bean? Is it a simple sieve that only collects the smaller beans or is it also hand sorted? 

In Kenya, Peaberry is a screen grade. PB (Peaberry) is a screen grade 14. PB is only between 5-7% of the total lot size. Hand sorting and gravity sorting is done after grading. This is done to remove undesirable beans.

Kenya has a different way of grading and separating their coffees which is based on the size of the bean with a higher ‘grade’ being given to larger beans. Can you elaborate on this way of grading and how it differs from other ways of grading green beans?

I find the Kenyan grading system to easy to interpret once you know it. The letter-based grade system has been in Kenyan coffee industry for a very long time. The primary grades are AA/AB/PB. AA is screen grade 17-18 (7.2mm), AB is screen grade 15-16 (6.6mm). There are also E/C/TT/T/UG. TT are light beans separated from AA and AB by air current & T are Smaller than TT, many fragments. Light beans separated from C by the air current. The latter grades usually do not meet the SCA speciality green coffee grading protocol because of defects. This however, does not mean they are not high-quality coffee. Some buyers get the TT/T/UG grades and use them to blend other coffees. The grading has nothing to do with the cup quality.

I am in favour of the grading of green beans. The process tends to produce a clean coffee and it helps with roasting profiles due to the size beans are all very close in size. The exposure of heat to surface area is crucial in roasting.

Kenya has a different way of grading and separating their coffees which is based on the size of the bean with a higher ‘grade’ being given to larger beans. Can you elaborate on this way of grading and how it differs from other ways of grading green beans?

Jamii Coffee does not buy from the Coffee Auction. Our sourcing system allows us to cup coffee before it gets to the marketer. For our wet mill direct (Empowerment) coffee, we cup the coffee directly at the dry mill (owned by cooperatives) and for our Farm direct (Concierge) coffee we get samples from the farmers. After we identify a sample, we note down the outturn number and we inform the cooperative marketer to reserve coffee for us. Sometimes the marketer does not know about the coffee. For the individual farms like Njemu Farm, we engage them throughout the year following up on crop management and production process. We then connect him with our marketer for logistics and payment modalities. Therefore, it has taken 10 years to develop the system as we tried to figure out how to work within the coffee laws and regulations in Kenya.

Our system was designed to bypass the auction system to create transparency, traceability, and relationships with the farmers and cooperatives. We were very careful to identify a marketer to work with. We had to ensure that they did not have a conflict of interest of coffee in the supply chain and had to allow full access to the cooperatives and farmers. Most marketers in Kenya are dry mill operators, dealers at the auction, and buyers of coffee. They operate at different companies but owned by the same entity. This conflict of interest has created issues relating to traceability and transparency. In our own small way, we are working on changing that perception.

Only established large estate farms with commitments of lot purchase and long-term relationships engage in direct trade. They have the resources, expertise and personnel to be able to do this.  They also have the resources to purchase a license to trade in the coffee action if need be. That’s why the system favours the auction system.

Can any farmer process their own coffee and sell it directly?  Why don’t more farmers do this?

For a farmer or a cooperative to engage in direct trade, they must own a Grower/Marketers license. This license would allow them to sell and receive payment for their coffee. First, there are limitations within the law that come with this license, the owner of the license is not allowed to trade at the coffee auction. This means if the farmer or co-op does not have a commitment from a buyer to purchase all the coffee in their possession then the license doesn’t serve them.

Secondly, it costs $1,000 to purchase the license and it is renewed every year. The cost is prohibitive to farmers or co-ops. Third, there is the logistics involved in the movement of coffee. The farmer and the co-ops have no experience in doing this, this would create a nightmare situation for any buyer no matter the nobility of the idea. They would have to acquire an ICO number, FDA# (if exporting to the US) and many other licenses depending on where you are exporting. Fourth, due to limited resources the farmers and co-ops cannot afford to hire professional marketers to globetrot marketing their coffee, and logistics personnel to move the coffee. For these reasons and many others, they end up appointing a marketer to sell and market coffee on their behalf.

Let’s talk about women in the coffee industry in Kenya. How common is it that women are involved in the farming? Where do you see women most being involved and recognized for their efforts?

Women are very much at the heart of coffee farming in Kenya. Unfortunately, they are the ones who do the hard work and the men get paid. It is disheartening for me to see this based on my experience. I believe that the involvement and recognition of women should not be limited to any part of the coffee trade. For example, the current CEO of Othaya cooperative society is a woman and the CEO and Operations Manager of our marketer are both women.

There should be no limit of women involvement. Jamii Coffee is exploring different ideas and ways to engage more women in the industry. We have had long discussions with the Marketer CEO on how to proactively engage more women in the trade from farming to other parts of the supply chain. As a company, we a looking for a farm owned by a woman so that we can incorporate them into our Concierge Coffee model. Our Concierge coffee will be a handcrafted coffee from Coffee tree to Cup. The coffee will be unmatched in accountability, credibility, integrity and transparency. We achieve this by having our team located at the source in Kenya all year round and, over 60 years of combined experience in the Kenyan coffee industry focusing on agronomy and quality maintenance and management. This means our involvement with the coffee is from Seedling to Cup.

A notable woman is Irene Nyaga, the wife of Simon Nyaga who both own Njemu Farm. She has been instrumental in the development and establishment of the farm. She worked a full time job as well as acted as the Human Resource person at their Farm to allow Simon to concentrate on the crop management. As an agronomist, Simon’s skill is more on crop production. She later quit her job after the farm became established and now works side by side with her husband.

At Caravan, we believe in “Brewing with Intention”. There is an honor we can give to all the hands and combined efforts of those in the coffee chain before us as we brew, whether we are a shop barista or home barista. For this particular coffee that we have sourced with Jamii Coffee, what do you want our brewers to know?

I would like your brewer to know the work we do is constantly improving from Farm to the Cup and we commit to give soul to the delicious cup of coffee. I would like them to recognize the hard work, commitment, patience and effort that Simon and Irene Nyaga have made to make that cup possible. Pruning of the coffee starts in April the previous year and the coffee is in your cup in June the following year. The coffee not only touches the lives of Simon and Irene but also it made it possible to hire community members to work on the farm on a seasonal basis. This is why Jamii Coffee got into the trade of coffee. It is humbling to know that with a single purchase you make a difference in someone’s life even if it is for a day.  In the words of Nelson Mandela “poverty is manmade” and to answer Martin L King said, “all wealth is as a result of the commonwealth”.  

Thank you so much for spending your time with us today!

Some quick facts for our readers:

*Co-op AKA Cooperative: Many farmers have coffee as a percentage of their crops. With a co-op, the farmers can bring their harvest and be included in the “commonwealth” of coffee farming with other farmers with smaller lots.  With one coffee tree representing one pound of coffee, you can imagine why co-ops are so beneficial to many farmers.

*Peaberry: Typically a coffee cherry seed (bean) splits into two parts with nutrients going to each half of the bean. With a peaberry, instead of the seed splitting in two, it essentially grows into and around itself having all the nutrients going into one small seed, rather than two bigger equal parts.

*Kenyan grading system differs from others in that the bean size is graded first, then it is sorted for quality among bean size. As Francis mentions, similar bean size is important to an even roast, as the beans will roast at the same rate.

On July 9th, Kenya News released that there was an important shift in the coffee sector regulations (Read about it here in this link https://allafrica.com/stories/201807090095.html)…  We reached out to Francis with Jamii coffee to see what the interpretation of the 2018 regulations was…Here’s what he said:

“Kat,

Based on our sourcing approach we did not need a marketing agent, but this is welcoming news!

We have been going through the coffee regulations 2018 and it looks like they are scrapping the marketing agents license and replacing it with a general Traders license which is more in line with our vision.  

Our interpretation was that it would give us the power to negotiate prices directly with cooperatives/Wet Mills/farmers and pay them directly as opposed to the current system where marketing agents have become gatekeepers for payment processing and/or negotiations.

The current system is especially frustrating when they receive 3% of the sale and yet they did nothing to locate you as a buyer or market the coffee. This has been our mission all along and couldn’t have come at a greater time.Thanks!! Talk to you soon!”

As you can tell we are thrilled to see such a pivotal move in this direction for the coffee farmer in Kenya.  Thanks for joining us on this journey as we see this process of change right before our eyes!

by Alex Koeppen