Building Sustainable Relationships

mie hansen line drawing

Mette-Marie (Mie) Hansen is the country manager for Sucafina Kenya. In her two decades in the coffee industry, she has worked as a barista, a coffee shop manager, a green coffee buyer, and for the last eight years as a coffee trader in Kenya. Born in the north of Norway, she has traveled all over the world for work; today she lives around 1 ̊ south of the equator, on a coffee farm in Kenya, with her boyfriend and their three dogs.

It’s hard to know where to start when writing about Kenyan coffee. My love affair with it is one of the longest relationships I’ve ever had, and like all relationships it ebbs and flows. Some days I feel passionately excited about our future together; other days I feel the issues we face are too complex to tackle.

What gives me hope is that, as I see it, the future of global agriculture systems is deeply connected to the future of Kenya. One major point distinguishing us from our neighbors in East Africa is the Kenyan law prohibiting coffee cherry or parchment buying: this means the farmer is the coffee’s owner up until it’s sold as green coffee. This structure gives the grower an unparalleled percentage of the FOB price—in some cases more than 90 percent—which should motivate continued strengthening of our coffee sector and foster trust from roasters. As value-chain players not involved in growing or processing, we can’t fully control the quality on the farm or primary processing level, but we can act as service providers, offering financing, training, access to equipment and inputs, dry milling, and many other resources.

Kenya’s youth numbers nearly 10 million, more than 20 percent of the overall population. (In development terms this is called a “youth bulge.”) This means we face an impossibly big wave of people trying to enter the workforce in a country where unemployment rates have hovered steadily around 10 percent for the last two decades. But those who farm are not considered unemployed, which raises a question: is it possible to harness the power of the grower-roaster relationship as a job-creation engine?

Coffee won’t be truly sustainable until farmers have access to markets where they can earn income from their efforts, then push ahead with greater investments in more productive inputs and practices. At the same time, I believe that the next generation of farmers will be very similar, in terms of spoken language and access to information, to their offtakers (roasters and consumers). It’s clear to me that the grower-roaster relationship is key to attracting more youths to coffee and farming, and thus a key part of our business strategy. Not only can it unlock jobs on farms themselves, but it should also spur job creation all along the value chain: more demanding specialty roasters and end consumers will require greater expertise in farmer training, soil quality assessment and treatment, tailored processing methods, secondary processing and shipping, and other uses of technology—all of which will create value-added sales for the grower. Mutual benefit and growth, after all, are fundamental to any strong relationship, and thinking through this lens gives me bright hopes for the future of this one.

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