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Vava Angwenyi is the founder of Vava Coffee, a Kenyan social enterprise that works with smallholder coffee farmers, women, and youth, utilizing training to provide marginalized community members with an opportunity to move out of poverty. She recently spoke about her endeavors at Re:co Symposium in Seattle, and wrote this article for us after visiting some of our primary producers earlier this year. You can visit Vava Coffee’s website here.

 

A word from Vava:

Still reeling from Expo! It has only been a few days since coming back home, jet lagged and all. I must say I had an amazing time this year. The Re:co symposium being the highlight, where I had the opportunity to share our story on sustainability and what that looks like from our perspective. Well-curated workshops and talks and my talk time there came to a close with a lecture on resilience – the je ne sais quoi that every entrepreneur must have.

Yes, it was long, the travel, the preparation, the event. And yes I am still catching up with things on the ground here in Kenya, and yes, my immune system hates me, but it was so worth it! I connected with so many amazing people, some of whom I had only spoken to via email for months. But the in-person meetings are the best, and made new business relationships that I hope will last a lifetime. Really, I must say the validation that we are indeed doing something right was great. That we we have a story that not only inspires, but tries to tackle some of the ugly issues we shy away from as an industry is encouraging. It was exciting to see the energy, interest and passion throughout the week at Expo. The follow up has already started – phone calls and emails. The follow up is 90% of the show and I will work hard towards making those collaborations and relationships happen: wish me luck!

Meanwhile in Kenya…

 

It’s a dull morning but I am excited to set out on yet another trip to visit a couple of wet mills, today we set out to Central Kenya – what has been known for ages as the heart and source of some of Kenya’s finest coffees.

I down a couple of coffee shots to get me straight and as usual get some to go.

Traffic seems pretty easy today seeing as it is just the first week of the year and most folks in Nairobi are either still out of town or taking it easy, not yet back to the grind. So we cruise easily down the highway and arrive just in time to meet our first factory manager in Nyeri.

I have to say I love my job and don’t regret the entrepreneurial journey despite the difficulties we encounter daily. Taking in the landscape of rolling hills as we head out to the factories, the fresh air, greenery, the smiles of the farmers and other Kenyans out trying to make their coin for the day. I am always grateful that I get to interact and spend time with the humblest and kindest of souls during these trips. The experience always gives me perspective and brings the realities of the inefficiencies of the coffee industry to light.

 

 

Key problem areas identified within our industry as priority to tackle have been: farmer profitability, climate change, and next generation involvement within this sector.

As we make our rounds one factory to another, what I am grateful for is the hope and humility these producers have. Many times, my heart does ache for them given the conditions in which they operate and how hard they work. Yet the returns from coffee are still a long way from reflecting on their bottom lines.

Most are grateful that prices have indeed gone up in recent years, but for others the frustration is rife and evident . What I have noticed are huge information gaps between traders and producers. Those that know how the systems work especially here in Kenya know it is tough for the trickle-down effect to be felt with any purchase unless you spend time forging that ‘direct buyer’ relationship.

I mention this as someone who got into the business of coffee solely because I have always challenged   the status quo and believe it could be transformed for the benefit of the producer. Traders should invest time, effort, resources to learn or have as much information as possible on sourcing and the impact their purchases are having (whether positive or negative) at source.  Some key information would be the basics: how many  number of players (middlemen) are involved in each transaction and when does that farmer get paid? Perhaps alternatives to sourcing in a more sustainable manner. Especially in a place like Kenya where most rely on the auction, we have the second window – Direct Trade. My decade-long experience in this sector has evidenced that not many coffee buyers truly know when these producers get paid or how the system may work on this end therefore it falls upon indigenous Kenyans like myself who are passionate about creating change in this sector to help demystify the workings of the Kenyan Coffee industry and try improve things for the next generation. We can give hope to the current farmers as they look to inspire their sons and daughters to take over the cultivation and trade of a lucrative cash crop.