Month 9 of Chimney Fire Coffee has entailed a return to East Africa to identify potential sourcing options from small estates and smallholders through well managed cooperatives, as well as working with exporters so that the coffee can make its way to our roastery in Kingston Upon Thames. I focussed on two areas: Nyeri in Kenya and Arusha in Tanzania, both renowned for high grade speciality Arabica coffees due to their relatively high altitudes, rich soils and well established processes. Friend, ex-colleague and agronomist, Robert Thuo has been an absolute gem and ensured a fruitful (and fun) trip and made it all possible on a startup budget!
It’s good to be back in the field and remember what gets me inspired – seeing how this coffee can be such a valuable livelihood to rural coffee farmers. I tell myself this as I sink into my $20 a night, gold lame, faux silk bed with a foot to spare on either side.
I have known Robert since 2011, when we worked together implementing traceability programmes in coffee and cocoa supply chains for coffee roasters and cocoa manufacturers. We’ve spent many long days schlepping coffee fields, GIS mapping farms and collecting farm and farmer data to enable companies to tailor farmer intervention programmes and secure ethical, quality coffee. I learned the complexities of this challenge from Robert and other colleagues and from seeing for myself.
Robert is now my trusted agronomist, sourcing agent, local fixer, etc. Robert works for the Nyeri County Department of Agriculture and Livestock Development as his day job and when I tentatively asked him if he’d help me source direct from Kenyan coffee farmers, I was hesitant, knowing that he enjoys his time at home with his family and cows on the ranch and knowing that we are such early stages that it may not be interesting to him. I was very wrong – Robert got on board with our vision instantly, is interested in how the speciality consumer market is growing and is proud as punch that coffee drinkers are enjoying Nyeri coffee.
Given our backgrounds and what we know about the coffee supply chain and importance of provenance, setting up the right arrangements with the right producers from the outset is key for us. Certification is a good place to start but we see this as a minimum standard rather than an aspirational standard. We want to ensure that premiums paid reach farmers and benefit all those involved in producing the coffee.
Large companies with complex supply chains find it difficult to make commitments that they know they can deliver on and in this sense small, artisan roasters have a key advantage if they use it for good. These will be key issues for us to consider as we grow, and indeed when considering how much we would want to grow.
Having a trusted friend who is local has also made this trip possible on a budget which is great as it’s really important to us to solidify legitimate direct sourcing agreements early on as the foundation of our business. Another key objective of Chimney Fire Coffee is to ensure that coffee is treated as an experience, not just a commodity. We are continuously learning and we want to others to experience this passion through our Labin Coffee Tour.
It’s exciting times, with my wife Amy also coming on board on a part-time basis. We’ll be linking up on Zanzibar after her work trip in Tanzania supporting local start-ups to scale up and address the big development challenges facing Tanzanians.
You can follow some of our live updates on our Instagram page.