How Francis Kungu of Jamii Coffee and his team are addressing the disparity in price and cost, the dropping quality level, and the threat of climate change to Kenyan coffee in a unique way.
It’s not often that we come across a coffee importer that is doing something genuinely different, but Francis with Jamii Coffee is on to something. He’s tackling systemic inequality in the Kenyan coffee industry, trying to push quality in a region that has struggled with declining harvests and protect his partner farmers against climate change. That may all sound too good to be true, but read on.
I had the opportunity to talk with him and it revealed a simple story. After moving to the Portland area he began noticing a lack of Kenyan coffee on the local coffee scene. He started asking why and the coffee roasters and shops came back to him with “we don’t have any relationships to get consistently good coffee out of Kenya”. So he began doing research on the Kenyan coffee market with the idea of importing “direct trade” coffee.
Brief aside about “direct trade”, the term has almost completely lost its meaning in the specialty coffee industry. Some use it to mean they have a direct relationship with the farmer, some use it to mean they talked with the farmer at some point in the process, some use it to mean that they have traceability and know exactly where the coffee is coming from, and some use it as a marketing technique because it sounds good. The heart behind it for many companies is that they want to show that they care enough about the coffee and its impact that they are willing to go all the way back to the farm-level to make sure it’s not harming anyone in the process. For Francis, however, it led him to his unofficial slogan: “If I can’t touch the farmer, I won’t touch the coffee”.
This level of involvement with coffee farmers led him to realize three things about the system that consistently undermined their hard work – Cost, Consistency, Climate.
Francis realized that many Kenyan coffee farmers had no idea what their coffee was worth. They didn’t know how much it cost to produce their coffee or that increasing their quality could increase their prices. They were simply doing things the way they had always done them. So he began to work with a few farmers to track production cost. This involved setting benchmarks on how much coffee an individual tree should produce if properly cared for, the cost of fertilizer, and the biodiversity of the total farm.
Coffee is often only harvested once a year (sometimes with a small crop, called a fly crop, later in the year) so could the farmer increase biodiversity in a way that would help their farm but also their pocketbook? It turns out that macadamia nut trees provide shade for coffee trees and you can begin keeping bee hives on your farm to help pollinate your trees. Both of these help with consistent quality and higher yield on trees, but they also provide macadamia nuts and honey for the farmer to sell.
A key component that sets Jamii Coffee apart was that Francis and his team were not doing this through a non-profit charity organization. They were working alongside farmers and stepping into a business relationship helping farmers see that they would be paid for this additional work. Once the cost of production was understood, Jamii was committed to paying it.
A common complaint that Jamii Coffee received about Kenyan coffee was that it wasn’t consistently good quality. One harvest would taste great and one would taste horrible. In many cases this was due to factors outside the farmers’ control. One key area was in processing consistency. Farmers would sell their coffee as cherry (prior to being processed) and they would have no more contact with it, often receiving less than the production cost. Jamii ensured they were working closely with the farmers AND the local processing center. This encouragement meant total transparency of prices paid to the farmer and the processing center, which alleviated conflict and ensured all parties were being paid fairly. This close involvement with both sides also opened up the opportunity for greater quality control as the farming practices and the processing standards could be monitored, ensuring high quality consistency from year to year.
Again, the team at Jamii encouraged transparency in the local community through business relationships and clear contracts rather than through charity. This meant that the entire community could reap the benefits of greater quality control and the higher prices it could command.
Lastly, one of the largest factors affecting the Kenyan coffee industry is climate change. Droughts are more common now, but even when it rains it doesn’t always rain at the same time or in the same quantity as it used to. This has caused the farmers to lose control over a key component of producing great coffee. While farmers could never control the weather, predictable weather patterns used to be relied upon. They knew that when they put fertilizer down it wouldn’t be washed away by an unseasonable rain a few days later, that the rain would generally last long enough to fully develop the coffee cherries and that dry spells would last months, not years.
Technological Innovations with Sprout
Jamii is in the process of working with an organization called Sprout that is tackling this issue. They are able, through satellite imagery and localized weather tracking devices, to see when unseasonable weather is affecting a specific area of the country. This can warn the farmers through text messages to check for specific issues related to the unseasonable weather (like if rain is expected around the time they would be placing fertilizer down). Eventually this can also turn into an insurance package that farmers can purchase that will protect them from harvest loss due to unseasonable weather. This is a game-changer for the coffee growing industry.
Although this particular partnership is still in development, the very fact that Jamii sees the need and is willing to work with their farmers to provide tools and protect their farms is unique in the industry right now. The angle here is the same as the other areas Jamii is trying to address; they are partnering as a business, not a charity, to empower the local farmers to take control over their product and receive the full benefit of that control.
Francis Kungu and his team at Jamii is tackling systemic inequality, increasing coffee quality and combating climate change in a very real way. We are proud to be offering some of Jamii’s coffee and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do! Pick up a bag and let us know what you think!
See our full interview with Francis from Jamii Coffee below!