Mihkel's trip to coffee origin; interview with a coffee farmer
From May to June, I spent 4 weeks in Kenya at coffee farms and I had a chance to meet about 15 coffee farmers. Listen their stories, get an overview what are the risks and challenges for coffee farmers. How they live every day, what their homes and farms look like. What makes a coffee farmer happy, what are the hopes and expectations of a coffee farmer. In the following interview, you can read the thoughts of an young coffee farmer David from Kenya.
Hi, David! Tell me a bit about yourself. What did you do before coffee and how coffee found you or how you found coffee?
My name is David Ngibiuni and I am 26 years old. I am passionate about the journey of life and adding value wherever I go or whoever I interact with. In life I believe that it’s not a destination and more of a journey, I want to explore any possible path that my life will take me and currently its coffee taking me on a very exciting journey. After leaving high school I was not sure about what I wanted to do in life other than I wanted to serve people and the only way I could do that was through business. However, I started off by pursuing a pilot's license but soon I ventured into marketing. Marketing took me places and eventually I landed a marketing position at a leading fashion retail chain in Kenya with over 20 locations. From time to time, I would visit the family coffee farm and see the problems they used to experience because of lack of knowledge and resources to properly produce coffee. All this resulted in low returns. My mother even talked of uprooting our coffee trees and looking for a more profitable cash crop. Having grown up tending and harvesting coffee during the school holidays, it was quite painful to see and that is how I found coffee. That was the moment I decided that I wanted to add value at the coffee farm and save our coffee estate.
How many coffee plants you have and what kind of varieties you grow and why those?
4100 coffee trees. 3500 Ruiru 11 and 600 Batian trees. Ruiru and Batian are sometimes preferred by farmers because they are resistant to diseases and don't need much spraying.
I know that your farm is fully organic, why you decide to do that?
Yes, the farm is fully organic. Reason for this is because the farm was initially a passive organic farm. A passive organic farm means that the coffee is organic, not by choice but by circumstances. Meaning that the coffee was left to grow as a bush and wasn't tended properly. There was no use at any point of chemicals, fertilisers or pesticides. I saw this as a positive as I am a person who isn’t a fan of herbicides and chemicals in our food for consumption. I decided to keep the farm organic but improve the practices when I took over. We are now doing proper tissue management at the farm, mechanically removing weeds and using traps to fight pesticides. We still aren't using any chemicals and I am proud to know that anyone who drinks my coffee will have the safest cup of coffee.
What are the biggest challenges for you, compared to farmers who use fertilizers in their farms?
Of course, organic farming is a compromise. For example, we only use organic manure from our own livestock's waste, this means that the manure sometimes isn't enough to be used for the whole farm. Climate change also causes us big issues. Sometimes due to colder climate in crop season, our coffee takes longer to mature compared to other farms that can simply incorporate a fertilizer to assist in growth. Manure also takes very long to be absorbed by the coffee trees compared to fertilizers. It is also quite expensive to maintain an organic farm in terms of labour inputs and specialised nutrition alternatives. I am still learning and taking short and specialised courses on how to tend coffee organically.
I know that you also sell and marketing your coffee and could describe your coffee. Is it important that farmer would know how they coffee taste?
I sell and market my own coffee with all the required licenses as a coffee producer. I find it quite necessary to be able to taste your own coffee for quality control. This lets me know if effort we are putting into the cup is paying off. From last season’s harvest (main crop 2018/2019) we produced a coffee with sweetness, medium acidity and medium body with notes of peach and soft pomelo. It is quite necessary, in fact mandatory if you want to be successful as a coffee producer to know the product you are selling. Sometimes coffee farmers don't put in any effort or sometimes overdo their practices because they don't know why they are doing it. It is said that Kenyan coffee is the best coffee in the world. When that is told to the farmers, some would just not put in any effort thinking that just because their coffee is from Kenya, it will automatically be outstanding. The way the coffee is handled at the farm and how it is processed can only be determined at the cup level. If defects are noted during cupping, it means the processing at the wet or dry station wasn't done well or if the coffee is too acidic, it means that something must be done at the farm to reduce this at the soil level.
You are also processing your coffee on your own. What are the pros and cons of processing your own coffee?
I believe that there are more pros than cons in processing your own coffee.
- You have more control on your quality. A farmer who processes their own coffee is able to properly tend to their coffee from the farm to the washing station or dry station. When the coffee isn’t mixed with other farmers’ coffees, you can be sure of the quality and that there aren’t many defects.
- A self-processing farmer has the ability to decide where his/her coffee can be sold. They can choose to take it to the local auction, export it or even roast it for local consumption.
- A self-processing farmer can receive payments much faster rather than a farmer whose coffee is bulked and paid seven months later as is done by the commercial washing stations.
- A self-producing farmer can easily be traceable by the coffee consumers and they can relate with the story of the farmer and how the coffee got to the end consumer from the farmer.
These are just but a few to mention, the cons of processing your own coffee are:
- Proper market linkages. The farmers are not able to reach the correct buyer and they are not able to sell their coffee at a good price
- Expensive set up costs. It is quite expensive to start processing your own coffee in Kenya and manage to legally market it as the costs from building a standard washing station to licensing are quite high.
- It maybe difficult for small scale farmers to export their coffee abroad for good prices because of their low volumes. It wouldn’t make any economic sense for a farmer to export a tone or two of coffee, as it would be too expensive for the roaster or the end consumer. This is simply dictated by economies of scale.
You also love to experiment with the processing, what are the results of doing that?
Experimenting with fermentation and other processing methods helps me get more in tune with my coffee and understand it better. The results of experiments are usually quite interesting and sometimes mind blowing as to what you can achieve by simply changing the pH of the water you are using or not using water at all. The results however, are not always positive. Sometimes I fail in many attempts but it’s always a way to learn for me. What I can say about my successful coffees is that they are quite special and will I will exploit more of the successful experiments to sell outstanding coffees in the market.
Kenyan coffees are in my opinion one of the best coffees in the world. Sadly, when I was the month in Kenya, I struggled to find really good and light/medium roasted coffee, what is the reason behind that?
It is true that we produce some of the best coffees in the world. However, having being colonised by the British during colonial time, we gravitated to appreciate tea more than coffee. 92% of our coffee is all exported and it’s quite hard to see a specialty coffee from Kenya at the local supermarket because most exporters and marketers don't believe the local market will appreciate the coffee at a higher price. Another reason is that the coffee that is left behind for local consumption is usually dark roasted because Kenyans have been programmed to think that good coffee has strongest/pungent aroma. The lack of coffee culture also makes Kenyans not know the difference between Arabica coffee and most instant coffees hence the reason they associate good coffee with pungent/strong aromas.
However I believe that this culture will change and Kenyans will learn to appreciate their own coffee as the younger generation coming up is consuming more coffee. I am also pushing the agenda to promote local consumption of coffee by blending, roasting medium and packaging great coffee for the local market. Once quality coffee is available in the market then the local consumption of coffee will rise.
What do you do when it’s off season in coffee?
For most farmers, off season is the time to tend to other crops as most farmers practice mixed farming activities. We on the other hand are organic and we spend a lot of time removing weeds. We are also rehabilitating the farm and training the coffee trees, so we still spend a lot of time maintaining the coffee trees by pruning, desuckering and sucker selection to maintain quality and a consistent crop. We are also selling coffee to the local market and spend a lot of time marketing and selling coffee locally off season.
What kind of other products do you have in addition to coffee?
Other than coffee, we produce milk and we have pigs. We also grow and sell bananas and the rest of the crops are for our own consumption (my family and employees). We also grow napier grass and other grasses for consumption by our dairy cows.
What do you think about coffee?
I love coffee. Before coffee, I can't think of anything else that has kept me so happy consistently. I think coffee is a very positive crop as it makes the lives of very many families better. Approximately 50 families in our community benefit from the coffee activities carried out from our coffee estate alone. it is also said that in Kenya coffee benefits 5 million people. I believe that coffee will change the current issue of unemployment in our country especially for our youth.
What would you like to say for the Baristainistute readers?
Hello Barista Institute! I'm a big fan and follower and i really appreciate all the informative content from all of you. I'd love to one day have you all at my coffee estate in Kenya and learn, interact with you just i have with Mihkel. Also, I'd like to add that there's also nothing wrong with coffee that uses the correct/recommended amount of fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides. There are farmers who go through special training on how to properly and sparingly use these on coffee and may not have a negative effect on the coffee. All in all, different coffee producers have different visions and goals and that's what sets us apart. Also, special thanks to Mihkel for trusting me to host him even when he had never seen or heard of me and to later culminate to a positive friendship where we learn, interact and share in coffee. From this, I believe that great things happen over coffee.