On a sunny day in late November, five off-road safari vehicles climbed to Hill Farm at the base of Mt. Kenya. The farm, one of the oldest and largest in East Africa, is home to nearly 900 acres of coffee bushes, some dating back to 1914. The Land Rovers contained a Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) delegation of 31 international coffee buyers, roasters, and baristas, all of whom were on a trip of a lifetime – tracing some of the world’s most well loved coffee beans to its place of origin.
“There’s something that a good Kenyan coffee that you don’t find in a lot of other origins. It’s a combination of the flavor, the acidity, the body, the mouth-feel. I like to call it completeness,” said Mike French a coffee shop owner and roaster from Minnesota, and a delegate on the SCAA trip.
Kenya will be the “portrait country” in the upcoming SCAA conference where more than 5,000 coffee buyers – many of whom are willing to pay a premium for quality beans that are picked by fairly paid workers – gather to discuss the newest trends in coffee and make coffee sourcing decisions. The USAID East Africa Trade and Investment Hub (the Hub) is supporting Kenya, and other East African countries, to market its coffee and make buyer linkages at the April 2017 SCAA conference. The Hub also supported the SCAA “Origin Trip to Kenya”.
The Kenya Government has identified coffee as one of the sectors with the greatest potential for U.S. expansion. In the late 1980s, Kenya exported more than 120,000 metric tons of clean coffee in a single year. More recent yearly exports stand around 40,000 metric tons. Returning to its previous export level means more jobs and better livelihoods for the smallholder farmers who predominantly grow Kenya’s high-quality coffee. Kenya’s Agriculture and Food Authority Coffee Directorate estimates that coffee production accounts for 30 percent of employment in the agricultural sector.
The Origin Trip provided coffee professionals with the opportunity to meet the smallholder farmers who hand pick Kenya’s coffee cheeries and dry the parchment on raised beds – a practice, that in addition to the high altitude, volcanic soil and combination of cool nights and sunny days, is said to provide Kenyan coffee with the bright, acidic, fruity qualities that are so prized among coffee connoisseurs.
The SCAA delegates skillfully assign flavors and attributes to brewed coffee. Many of them are expert cuppers, those individuals who snort and swish coffee to assess its grade. Specialty coffee needs to score 80 points or higher on the SCAA cuppers form, as assessed by flavor and bean form. But for customers, specialty coffee is more than just the quality of the coffee; it’s also about the story of origin.
“We want to take our customers on a journey,” said Mike French. Specialty coffee is about more than just quality, it is also about the story and relationships – where it comes from and who produces it.
The “Origin Trip to Kenya” provided the coffee shop owners and buyers to first take that journey for themselves. Mike intends to source more coffee from Kenya because of the Origin Trip. He’ll also be able to better articulate why his customers should be willing to pay more for the meticulously harvested beans.
“It’s one of the ways you can do good for people, quickly. You decide to pay them more for their coffee,” said Rob Hoos Director of Coffee at Nossa Familia and a SCAA delegate.