Getting access to high-quality green coffee from Kenya isn’t difficult. Anyone can buy coffee through the country’s auction system or an exporter. Despite the “high” prices fetched by some Kenyan specialty coffees—relative to prices in other countries—overall coffee production in Kenya has been declining noticeably in the past three decades. People are leaving the coffee farming business in Kenya because they don’t see it as a viable, long-term way to provide for their families. High prices do exist, but the lots fetching those prices are generally just a fraction of a farmer’s overall production—the remainder of that production is usually sold for significantly less. This purchasing model doesn’t offer much in the way of long-term stability or predictability for Kenyan coffee farmers.
We love Kenyan coffee, but we don’t want to buy it this way. We strive to build long-term partnerships between ourselves and farmers through which we can communicate directly and collaborate on projects to increase the quality of the entirety of a farmer’s total production. In return, we get great coffees that we can rely on each and every year. It’s a purchasing model based on adding value for everyone involved.
Adding value means that our business partnerships with coffee farmers are more than just a handshake. These partnerships look different in every country, in every region, and on every farm. We’d like to give you a peek into how this works in Kenya, with the help of the Kushikamana group and their leader, Peter Mbature.
|Coordinates||1.2921° S, 36.8219° E|
|Area||224,445 sq mi|
We negotiate prices directly with Kushikamana farmers, setting prices for each level of coffee quality. We also commit to buying coffees pre-harvest. The training and equipment we provide throughout the year raises the quality level for all coffees, meaning that we can buy a much higher volume at good prices instead of taking only the highest grade lot each harvest and leaving the rest to be sold in traditional markets.
The majority of Kenyan coffee goes through an auction system where farmers turn in their coffee to dry mills and get limited information on their quality levels and final auction prices. While the auction system does allow for pricing based upon quality, prices can still vary greatly year-to-year. Farmers don't have any contact with auction buyers and don't receive any feedback on how to improve their quality—and, hence, make more money—for the next auction. Although coffee can be purchased outside the auction system in Kenya, this is usually done through a process where buyers taste many coffees through exporters and then cherry-pick the best lots. Farmers might get a good price for these lots, but they don't have contact with the buyers, still have to find an outlet for the remainder of their coffee, and have no guarantee that they can sell to the same buyer next year.
Peter Mbature is an essential part of the successful partnership between Counter Culture and Kushikamana. Peter owns Kamavindi, a farm summed up well by its slogan: “Real Passion, Great Coffee.” Counter Culture coffee buyer Tim Hill describes Peter as “crazy inquisitive.” It is this passion and curiosity that fueled Peter to improve coffee processing at Kamavindi—an initiative that resulted in a stunningly complex coffee that continues to improve each year.
Soon, Peter was talking with neighboring farmers about enacting similar improvements. Over the last two years, more than a dozen small-estate growers have been meeting and sharing farming practices and quality control techniques. They’re not a cooperative, just a group of long-time coffee farmers who are bucking cultural norms because they see the value in sharing information and working together. The group chose the name Kushikamana —which means “connected”—to represent the unity of this amazing alliance. They are working to improve picking, processing, irrigation, drying, and storage techniques—and even variety separation.
Counter Culture has been supporting the group by paying for training and providing tools like moisture and pH meters, GrainPro bags for coffee storage, and a modest cupping/roasting set up so they can regularly taste their coffees for quality.
By providing material support and relying heavily on Peter as a sharer of knowledge, Counter Culture is working with the producers of Kushikama to add value to their coffees—benefiting everyone involved. Their dedication to quality improvement, combined with feedback on quality from Counter Culture, means that farmers are now able to ask higher prices for more of their coffees and that we, in turn, get the benefit of a stable, long-term partnerships with producers of exceptional coffees.
After a decade of trying to build strong, transparent, and direct partnerships in Kenya, this project is now one of best examples of Counter Culture’s purchasing model.