Kenya: The King of Coffee

By Phyllis Johnson

Kenya is the official Portrait Country for the 2017 Global Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle. Phyllis Johnson explains why Kenyan coffee’s distinct flavor profile and quality sets it apart from all other origins.


I’ll always remember my introduction to Kenya coffee. It was April 1999 in an old dusty basement of a commercial building in downtown Minneapolis. It was a space owned by an entrepreneur selling imported handmade crafts from his homeland—Kenya. My work in science took me to the city two or three times a year, and in my spare time, I spent hours in his store. The store owner talked about the intense labor it took to create the wood and stone carvings I admired, and each carving had a special meaning. He shared what life was like in Kenya, and at the end of the day, I left with a nice handmade craft and a wonderful story.

His name was George Gaiti and he became my friend over time. I looked forward to hearing his stories and learning about his native country. Once, George invited me into the basement to see all the carvings that had recently arrived. It was dark and clammy, away from the beautiful well-lit store, but for some reason I trusted George. Little did I know that something would grab my attention in that basement that would set my life on a new and exciting pathway.

Finding Meaning & Passion

In the midst of going through what seemed like thousands of carvings, I noticed a stack of burlap bags on the floor labeled ‘Kenya AA’. When I asked what was inside the bags George proclaimed, ‘THE best coffee in the world’.

At the time, I thought that it was probably a bit of exaggerated country pride, but later I discovered Kenya’s coffee was globally known for its distinctive flavor and quality. I asked many questions and before long, I told George that I would become an importer of Kenyan coffee. He opened up the bag of green coffee and the beans smelled like fresh earth. It smelled like home, and it reminded me of growing up on a farm. That evening I left the store excited that I had found what I believed to be my life work—coffee.

Expanding my knowledge was essential. I enrolled in several classes to learn as much as possible on the coffee—its history, process, quality. It became evident that Kenya was the gold standard that other coffees around the globe aspired to reach. Instructors routinely used Kenya as the best-case example to showcase full-body, acidity, and overall complexity.

Longtime coffee lovers reminisced about the beautiful coffees that far exceeded the coffees of today. They appreciated a flavor profile, described as hints of blackcurrant and black berries, with grapefruit acidity.

Facing the Fire

It is my belief that the rest of the coffee-producing world has closed the quality gap with Kenya. The popularity of micro-lots, specially grown, harvested, and prepared coffees globally are commonplace in today’s market. But while they compete well with high-quality Kenyan coffees, for me, the country’s distinct flavor profile and quality still stands alone.

Although coffee has lost its position as Kenya’s top foreign exchange earner, it is still important for the country and especially in the lives of small-scale farmers. A total of 30% of all agricultural employees in Kenya work in coffee. The industry comprises 800,000 small-scale farmers, belonging to 500,000 societies and there are 4,000 estates.

Despite coffee’s significant history in the country, Kenya struggles with many challenges however. It has been 30 years since it produced its largest crop of 127,000 tons. Volumes have fallen considerably since then and in 2015, the country produced only 45,000 tons.

In a report last year, The Economist detailed the many struggles faced with declining coffee volumes. It attributed this decline to the growing middle class, with housing development taking over farmland.

Vertically-integrated sister companies hold ownership in mills, marketing agents, and serve as dealers. This makes it incredibly difficult for competitors to enter the market without this level of ownership—a challenge my company, BD Imports, experienced first-hand as a small importer committed to doing business with other local exporters and cooperatives.

While volumes are dropping in Kenya, Uganda has increased production with a return of 80% of export price to its farmers versus the 20% return Kenyan farmers realize. However, one thing I’ve learned about conducting business in Africa is to avoid making comparisons between countries. There are no silver bullets that will solve all the challenges coffee producers face. While there are many lessons that could be learned from other nearby origins, Kenya must plot its own way forward to success.

Looking Forward

There are efforts underway to reverse the decline in production. Margaret Mithamo, small-scale farmer and president of International Women’s Coffee Alliance Kenya Chapter, says ‘Kenya is prepared to engage women and children in its plan to increase productivity. Although we are challenged as an organization to reach women throughout the country, Kenyan coffee farmers are starting to see coffee farming as a business.’

Kenya’s Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) is expecting production to increase in the current crop season to 47,000 tons, according to reports in the Daily Nation. Plans are in place to subsidize fertilizer to farmers in order to achieve higher yields and to increase land under coffee cultivation from 103,000 hectares to 130,000 hectares by 2020. In doing this, production is expected to rise from 42,000 to 93,000 tons by 2020.

The greatest opportunity lies in helping small-scale farmers become more productive while maintaining the unique quality they produce. Currently, the ratio of land under coffee production by small-scale farmers compared to estates is 4:1, whereas production output is 2:1. Empowering and supporting small farmers would not only allow for more variety and uniqueness within the country’s coffee profile, but also strengthen local economies and communities.

Resilience

Kenya and its coffees have given me passionate life work. It has provided incredible friendships, business partners, and opportunities for positive change in the world. It was from the slopes of Mt Kenya we found the best coffees in the world and provided them to our valuable customers in the U.S., Canada, and beyond. It is where we met incredibly strong and resilient coffee farmers who withstood generations of uncertainty in a market that isn’t always kind. It was where an elderly farmer challenged me to consider focusing my attention on gender equity in coffee, long before it was a familiar topic in the industry. I will forever be grateful to Kenya and what it has offered to my life.

No matter what challenges the Kenya coffee industry faces, there is no denying that Kenya can do with ease what it takes others to do only after extreme effort, and that is produce the world’s best cup of coffee. Dare to learn more about the origin and be a part of Kenyan’s great comeback in coffee. I hope that it takes you on an incredible journey.

Phyllis Johnson is President of BD Imports and long-time member of the Specialty Coffee Association.

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