'Specialty Coffee Should be Enjoyed by Those Who Grow It': The Farmer's Daughter Joining Kenya's Coffee-drinking Revolution

Courtesy of Revolutionary Coffee

Kenya is one of the world’s most renowned coffee-producing countries. Its coffees are sought-after by specialty roasters for their clarity, acidity, and complexity; but within Kenya, coffee consumption has remained a relative afterthought.

Its colonial-dominated past means that tea is still Kenya’s drink of choice, and historically the coffee that is consumed has mostly been instant. This is beginning to change, as specialty coffee culture spreads around the world and the country’s growing middle classes get a taste for better quality brews.

Today a new generation of coffee professionals is emerging in Kenya and specialty coffee is spreading beyond the big cities. This is allowing more Kenyans—and, crucially, the farmers who grow the crop—the opportunity to taste great coffee.

One of the aims behind the founding of Nairobi-based Revolutionary Coffee was to allow Kenyan coffee producers to easily try their own coffee. “Specialty coffee should be enjoyed by those who grow it,” CEO Wangeci Gitata-Kiriga tells me. One of her goals is to make sure that what the farmers drink “is a reflection of the kind of work and commitment that they put into that cup.”

Jump in the Car and Go

Gitata-Kiriga is herself the daughter of coffee farmers. “I grew up on a coffee farm,” she says, “so there’s a little bit of nostalgia there. But one of the things that really prompted me to start Revolutionary Coffee was this notion that we keep exporting our best. We are not enjoying the best of the best because we're so quick to export. So I said to myself, one of the things that I really want to do is to make sure that we are enjoying specialty coffee at home.”

Primarily a roaster, Revolutionary supplies cafes and restaurants around Kenya while plans are in the works for a cafe of their own. Sourcing green coffee, while on the one hand quite easy because of how close she is to the farms—“I can go have a chat, just jump in the car and go,” Gitata-Kiriga says—has also thrown up some unexpected challenges.

“What has been interesting when we’ve had these conversations [about buying coffee] has been the surprise,” she tells me. “The surprise that I want to buy export quality coffee for the local market. So on the one hand you've got the farmers being surprised that you're ready to pay for export coffee at the dollar price, and then you've now got the consumers who are like, ‘hang on a second; how come your coffee is so expensive?’ And I'm like, because it's great coffee!”

The name Revolutionary Coffee is linked to Kenya’s colonial past, and how the British used coffee as a tool to discourage resistance. For much of their time in control of the country, the British government banned Kenyans from growing coffee. “It wasn’t until we were fighting for independence and the state of emergency was declared that [the British] allowed Africans to grow cash crops like tea, coffee, and pyrethrum [a type of chrysanthemum flower that produces a natural insecticide],” Gitata-Kiriga explains.

“It was seen as a distraction, where you're being given leeway to earn some income and so you focus on the income earning and not so much on the agitation for full independence. So that was the rationale behind the name Revolutionary, because it was this radical change that was tied to financial empowerment of Africans through this particular crop of coffee.”

Coffee and colonialism are closely intertwined. In many producing countries, coffee was first introduced by colonizers looking to extract wealth from their territories. Coffee grew on plantations controlled by the ruling classes and worked by slaves or indentured servants, with the resulting crop exported to Europe to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Along with the coffee, the wealth created from its growth flowed north to fill the coffers of Spain, France, Great Britain, and the other imperial nations.

How to Increase Consumption

The modern coffee industry still reverberates with echoes of its colonial past. One of the most visible remnants is the general lack of consuming culture in countries most known for producing coffee. With a few notable exceptions—Ethiopia, for example, has a long history of coffee ceremonies—domestic consumption remains relatively low in countries that depend on coffee exports for a large percentage of their GDP.

If coffee is consumed, it tends to be lower quality—the good stuff gets shipped abroad. That is beginning to change. Countries such as Vietnam and Colombia have growing specialty coffee scenes, and in Guatemala annual domestic consumption doubled in the five years to 2019.

In Africa the vast majority of coffee is still grown for export. More than 12 million households across the continent depend on coffee as their primary source of income, and so there’s an incentive to sell their crop for the highest price, which usually means to the United States, Europe, or Asia. Initiatives such as the Africa Coffee Facility, set up by the International Coffee Organization along with the Inter African Coffee Organisation and Centre for Agriculture & Biosciences International, intend in part to grow domestic consumption as a hedge against global price fluctuations.

Coffee Shops in Producing Areas

Unlike some of its neighbors, Kenya’s coffee production has declined substantially in recent years. Gitata-Kiriga puts this down to a lack of institutional investment, but also land use pressures as cities expand. Kiambu County, which produces some of Kenya’s best coffee, is right outside Nairobi and is dominated by large estates.

“With the growth of the city and the rate of urbanization, the price of real estate and the value of the land has far outstripped any earnings that farmers could get from their coffee,” she explains. “Farmers do the math, and they’d rather put up a block of flats and know what their income is than be subject to global commodity pricing. So what has happened is that a lot of these areas that had beautiful coffees have moved away from coffee farming, and have really, honestly turned coffee into concrete.”

At the same time, Uganda has invested heavily in increasing its coffee production and has become Africa’s largest exporter of robusta, while Ethiopia is also working to increase its production. “We haven't had that kind of motivation or that kind of government policy that is really trying to incentivize farmers to increase coffee production,” Gitata-Kiriga says. Government reforms attempting to address some of the issues within the sector caused a turbulent summer for coffee producers, as the central auction house shut down and coffee went unsold.

Gitata-Kiriga hopes that increasing domestic consumption will give Kenyan farmers another avenue to sell their coffee and encourage more investment in the industry. Kenyans are starting to drink more coffee—consumption in the country tripled over the past decade—but the trend toward specialty is still mostly confined to the cities.

“In Nairobi it’s growing, there’s a really supportive coffee community but it still remains very urban,” she says. “We do have some good specialty coffee available in supermarkets, and we’re also starting to find coffee shops in producing areas. We’re seeing them in Meru, in Nyeri, in Nandi Hills—the fact that these [coffee shops] are there is very exciting.”

Will Gitata-Kiriga source green coffee from her family farm? “When I told my mum that I was going to start this company, she was very excited, because she thought that I was going to get into coffee farming,” she says. “And I said no, I did not want to get into coffee farming. I wanted to be on the value addition end of it. But I did tell her that if her coffee meets our specialty coffee specifications we shall happily buy some. She didn't take too kindly to that!”

As it turns out, the coffee did in fact “cut the mustard. We will be having a limited edition from her farm this main crop. And yes, I will be paying her in dollars for it.”