Africa coffee freelance Simon Cumbers travel

Strange Brew

When it comes to coffee, Kenyans don’t know what they’re selling. Their coffee is among the best in the world, but most locals here have no idea. Solomon Kamau took me on a walkabout of his coffee co-operative this week near Thika, about an hour north of Nairobi. It provides around 8,000 smalhold farmers with processing and support for their coffee crop, with enough trees in their extended network to produce 8million kilos of beans in a good year.

They’re aiming to sell their coffee directly to the coffee consumer overseas in the coming months, because by going direct, you cut out the middleman, and the farmer gets more money. So says Kamau.

But Kamau, general manager of the co-op, doesn’t drink coffee. His farmers don’t drink coffee. Kenya, on the whole, doesn’t drink coffee.

And that could be a real problem for the coffee industry here.

Kenya is a tea society, from the milky, sweet massala brew I had while waiting for Kamau in Thika, to black gingery stuff, and everything in between. Coffee, in comparison is costly and unpopular. The growth of the middle class in Kenya means that its consumption is on the up, but I’ve been told that a lot of the bagged coffee in stays on supermarket shelves so long that it goes bad before it ever has a chance to be brewed.

Where I’m staying, the staff who do drink coffee are instant coffee drinkers. When I bought a small percolator and started making real coffee in the kitchen, there was a lot of inquiring as to how this odd little machine worked. The results spoke for themselves. I felt like a missionary, seeking conversions in unspoilt territory.

But back to the farmers, and the co-op manager who don’t drink coffee. Kamau and I talked about growing the beans, and the grading of the beans, and what difference you might get in terms of taste from one end of the scale to the other.

Kamau, pointing from a lovely, obvious AA-grade bean to a manky, gangrenous-looking little peaberry, confidently told me “There is no difference in taste”. Coffee coinnoisseurs would disagree, as would the global coffee market. AA coffee beans, on a typical day, can fetch five dollars a bag or more. AA beans are the coffee stereotype we know and love, a smooth, consistent brown oval with a delicate ‘S’ mark down the middle. TT-grade beans, in comparison, look like picked scabs or excised warts. If you opened a bag and it was full of TT beans, you’d send it back with a compensation claim for nervous shock.

The look of the bean, and the taste when roasted, are among those things that  coffee traders lfind incredibly important, and it’s what guides their bidding. And sure enough, when I went to a coffee auction last week, roughly a million tonnes of coffee was raffled off. The coffee that tasted like armpit (according to one trader) and looked like crushed beetles was all but given away.

But back to the tea-drinking coffee farmer. Imagine, for a second, an Irish potato farmer who didn’t eat potatoes, and instead ate only pasta. It seems ridiculous. Or a Chinese man, standing knee-deep in his paddy field, who had never tasted rice. Would you buy their product? Would you trust them to know how to grow what you wanted?

I asked Kamau what made a good coffee bean, how you could get a crop to produce consistent quality. The answer came in basic agricultural terms. Fertiliser. Good husbandry. And, to their credit, they are looking into the new Batian variety, a hardy plant that is disease- and drought-resistant. They also splice one strain of coffee plant with a good root system with another that produces a better bean. But how that relates to a cup of cappuccino isn’t even a mystery, it’s a totally alien concept.

Educating Kenyan farmers about the value of their crop, and what makes a good bean, thence a good cup, will be part of the process in bringing the industry along. At the top, the marketeers are already being upskilled, with American taste experts flying in to help the people selling the coffee understand what they’re selling and how to tell the a-grade espresso bean from the Maxwell House mank, and market accordingly. The marketeers are at the top of the coffee tree. The knowledge has yet to make its way down to the roots.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147

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