Building a Better Coffee Future in Kenya – 25 Magazine: Issue 7

Building a Better Coffee Future in Kenya – 25 Magazine: Issue 7

DDuring the harvest season, it’s common for coffee farmers to skimp on sleep.

When KIM ELENA IONESCU first called PETER MBATURE, it was to see if he would be willing to contribute to a story on young coffee-producing professionals in Issue 6. It quickly became an ongoing conversation about the future of coffee farming, some of which they share here in Issue 7 of 25 Magazine. 

Many who rise in the dark to begin picking at dawn will not finish processing the day’s haul and cleaning all of their tools until after nine o’clock at night, and by the time they arrive home, a night’s rest might be better described as a nap. Night after night for three months, this cycle repeats itself, and farmers get used to catching up with each other, or their families, at all hours, as the coffee allows.

I called Peter Mbature in Embu, Kenya at 10:30 p.m. East Africa Time, which, he insisted, was a perfectly reasonable time to follow up on an email conversation he and I had been having about his family’s farm, Kamavindi. “For me, it is always a good time to talk about coffee,” he laughed. “I never get tired of the subject, so it never feels late.” Under other circumstances, I would have assumed that he was just being polite and accommodating to my schedule, but I’ve been following Peter on social media for the past year and the timing of his Instagram posts reveals that he either gets up really early, stays up really late, or does both, regardless of the day of the week or time of the year. I had first reached out to Peter some months earlier for a story about young farmers after hearing accolades about him from former colleagues of mine at Counter Culture Coffee, who buy coffee from Peter’s family’s farm. Initially, my only intent at the time was to gauge his willingness to be interviewed by someone else, but Peter’s enthusiastic and lengthy responses to my questions led to more questions, and an hour and a quarter into our conversation I realized I was interviewing him myself.

An Mbature family portrait: Peter stands with his wife, Gladys Wanjiru, and their two sons, Ryanhill Mbature (left) and Markjayden Mbature (right).

What follows is a mashup of the interview we conducted over WhatsApp and our ongoing email conversation.

Kim Elena Ionescu: How did you get your start in coffee?
Peter Mbature: Growing up, I always had a passion for farming. As a little boy, I had a plot where I used to plant corn and beans, and I also raised chickens (I still remember when my favorite hen chased me for getting too close to her chicks). Like many young people, I left the farm for Nairobi for opportunity, and I was an accountant there for five years before I lost my younger brother, who had been helping my parents manage the farm where I grew up. I returned to the farm full time in October of 2012, when coffee picking was just beginning for the season, and I took over the processing. The coffee from that season sold for prices well above the auction, which made it profitable, unlike our horticultural crops, which were never profitable enough to be sustainable.

KEI: It’s almost October now, so you must be getting ready for this year’s harvest. How many of your family members will be involved?
PM: I manage the farm with my siblings, my mom, and my wife. I have four sisters working with me, but the youngest is the most interested. Coffee is part of my family – we all grew up seeing my father process coffee, but he passed away a few months ago.

Peter discusses drying with a Kushikamana project farm manager while his son Ryanhill looks on.

KEI: I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I’m glad to hear that you have so many people working closely with you at Kamavindi, though, because you’re not only working on your farm. Can you tell me more about the work you do with other farmers in the region where you live?
PM: Since 2014, when I first started getting feedback on Kamavindi’s coffee [from Counter Culture Coffee] and learning about the changes I could make to improve the quality of the coffee, I have been experimenting and trying new things, including separating varieties and learning to cup coffee. I have been working on different processing for our farm’s Ruiru11 for the past three years and last year, at last it performed really well in the cup, even coming close to the scores of our SL-28 variety. As I have learned, I have been sharing everything I know with my neighbors, and that’s how Kushikamana was born. Our group grows every year because people hear that we have relationships with buyers and want that opportunity, too. Some farmers are only interested in the price, but I believe that relationships are even more important to the sustainability of a farm, because there’s a low awareness in Kenya of actual prices paid by buyers for coffees sold through the auction. This lack of trust is an enormous challenge.

Peter leads a Kushikamana training session at Kamavindi with small estate farmers from Meru, a region with a deep coffee history that has, in recent years, abandoned coffee production for more profitable crops. When they started, the coffees from the group scored below 80 points, but they are now cupping in the range of 84–87 and the group has more than tripled their volume.

KEI: Speaking of challenges and sustainability, one issue that is often raised as an obstacle is the average age of coffee farmers. At 34, you’re relatively young, and I imagine some of your neighbors are old enough to be your grandparents. Are your ideas about relationships and quality improvement met with interest or resistance by older people?
PM: The eldest farmer in our group is 89 years old, but still receptive to new information. Ninety-nine point nine percent of farmers receive me very well, but they are hesitant to invest in new techniques that are risky. I am always pushing them to take risks, experiment, and try new things! Even when they are willing, their age is a challenge for us, because there may be no one to take over the farm when they’re gone.

One of the farmers in Kushikamana who received an award from the President for coffee quality last year just died and now his farm is gone because his children didn’t want to take over. Young people don’t want to work in coffee when they see their parents stay poor. Who would choose that? They would rather go to Nairobi and work as a valet.

 

KEI: I have been hearing that same worry from coffee producers around the world for the past decade, but only recently from buyers. Do you see an opportunity in Embu?
PM: Yes, I think that the relationships we have with buyers help farmers to see new possibilities, like for example that their children might learn to cup coffee and become Q Graders. Currently I am in the process of setting up a coffee lab at the farm, where I will be doing continuous analysis of coffees from Kushikamana and the local cooperative society and giving timely feedback for quality. My vision is for it to be a place where any interested farmer or cooperative could bring their coffee, meet buyers, and freely engage in discussions on coffee quality and partnerships. I would love to have locals experience coffee in a different way, and for youths and students to discover the potential that the coffee sector holds. I would love to be certified in the Q Processing course and set up a training center at the farm to bring the Q closer to the farmers. I want to do all of these things and keep sharing and experimenting because coffee has made me a better person, both financially and in character.

KEI: A better person! That’s inspiring. Can you explain how it has made you better?
PM: Through coffee, I have gotten to meet and work with people from different cultures, including people in Kenya I never would have met. Coffee has taught me the value of hard work and given me more confidence. ◊

PETER MBATURE is the General Manager of Kamavindi in Embu, Kenya. He was interviewed for 25 by KIM ELENA IONESCU, SCA’s Chief Sustainability Officer.

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