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In the Field with Wycliffe Murwayi

wycliffe line drawing

In December 2019, Parlor’s founders interviewed Sucastainability field agronomist and managing director Wycliffe Murwayi while driving across the coffee regions along the southern slopes of Mt. Kenya.

Dillon:

Could you tell us about your childhood?

Wycliffe:

I grew up in western Kenya, no coffee at all. I went to an agricultural college, between Nairobi and Thika, to study horticulture. Those days, thirtysomething years ago, there was coffee everywhere. There were large plantations on both sides of the road for a hundred kilometers out of Nairobi. When I finished college, the easiest job to get was on a coffee farm. My last day of college, after graduation, I just walked into the nearest one and asked for a job.

AJ:

Did you actually walk there?

Wycliffe:

Yes, it was very close to the college. Those days there was a company that managed large plantations, and I got hired as a trainee farm manager with Standard Chartered Estate Management. Eventually, I was promoted to group manager, supervising five farms.

AJ:

How big was the group of farms?

Wycliffe:

A thousand acres.

Dillon:

Wow.

Wycliffe:

After about ten years, I went to work for Technoserve, implementing a regional program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. We were training fifty thousand coffee farmers to double their yield in three years and improve quality so their earnings would increase from twenty-five cents for a kilo of cherry to seventy-five cents. We also trained them on pruning, harvesting, composting, soil management, and weed control. When the program ended, I worked briefly for African Fine Coffee Association, which organizes the Taste of Harvest Competition, going around and choosing the best coffee lots in each country. In 2015, Sucafina set up two farmgate operations, Sucastainability Kenya Limited and Sucastainability Tanzania Limited, and tapped me to become managing director of both. We started a farmgate operation, processing cherry to improve quality, purchasing parchment from farmers at a better price in southern Tanzania, and purchasing direct specialty lots from farmers in Kenya. That’s when we found Ibutiti and Kiumu. We started with small farms, getting buyers to go meet the farmers. We bought the Highlands Mill in 2017, renamed it Kahawa Bora, and went full-fledged in our smallholder business. We then positioned ourselves to deal in microlots, working directly with small-estate farmers and connecting them to buyers—roasters or specialty traders—to get them into a longer-term relationship.

AJ:

So you’ve been working in coffee now for almost thirty years?

Wycliffe:

Yes, thirty years at the end of this year.

AJ:

Is this your dream job? I mean, I know you wanted to be a solo guitarist...

Wycliffe:

Hahaha! Actually, I wanted to be a pharmacist. I wanted to dispense drugs. I got called to a pharmacy college. Unfortunately, the letters came through my father’s box, and he hid them.

AJ:

No way!

Wycliffe:

I got called to an agricultural college and a pharmacy college. Both letters came at the same time, and my father only gave me the one to the agricultural college.

AJ:

Are you grateful that he hid the other one?

Wycliffe:

I’m very grateful. I didn’t know at the time what I’d enjoy! I really enjoy farming. But it’s been nice getting to know the other side of the coffee chain. At my previous positions, as an agronomist, I was only concerned with volume and quality. We didn’t really care what happened to the coffee after that. Dealing with roasters and traders has given me a wider view of the chain.

Dillon:

You’re following the coffee to the final destination.

Wycliffe:

Yes, and this is helpful. When I’m speaking to the farmers, I tell them why they need to put down fertilizer, pick ripe cherry, ferment right, dry it correctly—but I have in mind the end product. When I tell them how they need to produce more coffee, they always ask about the cost. And now I’m able to link it all together: “Don’t worry about the cost, because if you buy drying material it’s going to cost you fifty dollars, and if you dry the coffee well you’re gonna earn a hundred dollars.”

Every farmer only sees their coffee up to the farmgate. If they get a good price there, they don’t care what happens after that. I’m looking more long-term, because a lot of the things we do in the beginning actually pay off much later. For example, for a farmer choosing a variety now, it won’t pay off for maybe five years. So should the farmer uproot an old variety and plant a new one? It looks expensive now, but maybe it’s worth it. So I need to understand what varieties the trade will need in five years. That’s why we slowed down on planting Ruiru a bit. However, there ​ are some places where I still recommend planting Ruiru 113—places where the farmer isn’t going to produce specialty coffee. They just need to worry about yield and cost, and Ruiru 11 can cut their cost by 30 percent.

AJ:

How do you measure a farmer’s success? Is it defined by their ability to elevate socioeconomic status over time, or is it connected to their ability to farm sustainably? Is it attached to a dollar sign?

Wycliffe:

It’s difficult to define, but to me success is a happy farmer. I’ve seen farmers get seventy-five cents per kilo of cherry, and they’re not happy. And I’ve seen farmers get fifty cents per kilo of cherry, and they’re happy. At Technoserve, the idea was to increase the farmer’s yield as well as their earnings by unit. Now, increasing the yield is 100 percent in the farmer’s hands. It doesn’t depend on a trader or anybody else. They can do that straightaway. They don’t need to think about it. Increasing their income per unit is dependent partly on the quality they produce, but partly on the market. So if I’ve done my bit, we move them from thinking they can only earn more if the market improves to instead think, “I can double my income by doubling my yield.” So the first sign of success for me is that the farmer is applying the correct agronomy. There’s a minimum production that they need to achieve to be in business; there’s no empirical figure, but my current rule of thumb is five kilos of cherry a tree. The second sign is the quality of the coffee. Seventy-five percent of what every farmer produces should be premium. (By premium I ​ mean the grades that the market exports: AA, AB, PB and C4.) If I find a farmer who’s achieving those two goals, I’m willing to work with them, because I know we can make the market. If the farmer is not able to achieve those goals, even if I sell their AAs for specialty, they will not attain success. Or, rather, they might for one year, but it’s not sustainable.

Dillon:

If a producer meets those two benchmarks you’ve set, what are the first things you focus on?

Wycliffe:

What we’ve done at Sucafina is note that selling coffee starts with agronomy. Every farmer that works with us gets a visit from an agronomist who gives them an assessment and a recommendation. There are three areas the farmer needs to start with. The first is pruning, to ensure the trees are young and vibrant. The second is coffee nutrition and soil. The third is processing. So the farmer has to have the correct kind of trees, pruned out nicely. The farmer has to make sure the trees are healthy, so that they can flower and produce seed. And when that comes to fruition, they have to harvest the coffee and process it well. If they agree to prune and use correct nutrition, we know in three years they’ll be to the level. If the farmer doesn’t agree to work with us in those three areas, then we have no business with them.

Some farmers want to work with us but don’t want to put in the resources. They say, “I would like to apply the fertilization you want, I would like to prune, but I don’t have the money.” So we go ahead and provide the cash to pay the pruners and pay for the inputs. There’s only one problem in Kenya with small-scale farmers: nobody knows their cost of production. They can’t tell you when they’re making money and when they’re losing money. I’ve been an agronomist for years, and I can’t tell you the cost of production.

AJ:

You’re serious?

Wycliffe:

I can’t.

AJ:

Is it variable depending on the region, the farm, the size of the farm?

Wycliffe:

It depends on the farmer. But my rule of thumb is that, if a farmer is making five kilos, the first three kilos of cherry is for maintenance of the tree. That’s like the overhead, and then from there is their profit. The farmer who returns three kilos to the farm and is left with two might make about a dollar a tree. If they have four thousand trees, they make four thousand dollars a year.

AJ:

How can it be that difficult to get an idea of the cost of production for a farmer?

Wycliffe:

Farming systems are very varied. For instance, a farmer will put down fertilizer if they have money; if they don’t have money, they may not. Or they will use manure from their cows, which they don’t calculate as value. Secondly, a lot of the initial farming systems use family labor. Do you count this as part of the cost or not? Most ordinary farmers with one to two acres of coffee don’t actually hire labor. They use their own. They go to the farm themselves and pick the coffee and deliver it to the cooperative.

AJ:

And a farmer with one to two acres is most likely delivering cherry to a cooperative?

Wycliffe:

You’re only allowed to have a plantation when you have five acres. But a farmer with three acres, even if they’re delivering to a cooperative, will most likely hire labor for harvesting.

AJ:

Okay. But is a farmer with say, one to two, even three acres, able to live sustainably off the land and only farm coffee?

Wycliffe:

No, no. The average farmer in Kenya, coffee is their cash crop. They grow their food so they don’t have to use this money for food. They live on their farm, so they don’t have to pay rent. They have a cow, so they have milk. We’ve found that every farmer has at least three income streams, commercial ones. They have coffee. They probably have a few avocado or macadamia trees. When they receive coffee money, it’s a bundle the farmer can use for school, medical, clothing, holidays. That’s one reason it’s a prestige crop. The second reason is many farmers are sentimentally attached to their coffee. It’s inherited, something they grew up with, so many of them keep it even though they may not be making much from it.

Dillon:

I’d love to talk a little bit about the auction system. Do you have a sense of why and how it came to be in Kenya?

Wycliffe:

Coffee was grown by large farmers who didn’t know the market. The best way was to take it to a centralized place and let the market come. And because the quality was so varied, they gave out samples first. I think that it’s the best way to sell coffees that you cannot describe in terms of a known commodity. But the auction system was nice, because all the farmers were in cooperatives. It was the only transparent method for everybody. The owners don’t know New York, they don’t know the final buyer, so they can’t negotiate. But they started selling. It’s a very good price-discovery mechanism, the auction. A farmer sitting at home can know that an AA is currently going for three or four hundred dollars [per fifty kilogram bag], so they can price their lot accordingly.

Dillon:

Are farmers happy with the auction system today?

Wycliffe:

Yes. They are not happy with the prices, but they are happy that they get paid what they are owed.

Dillon:

What is the formula for great coffee, in your opinion? And what makes good coffee great?

Wycliffe:

Having observed coffee from other countries, I’d say the first thing is of course the climate: rainfall, temperatures, elevation. People say elevation, but it has nothing to do with elevation; it’s actually that elevation modifies climate, cools or warms or adds rainfall. Number two is soil type. Number three is the variety that the farmers grow. And number four is how they care for the coffee. In that order. Caring for the coffee, though very important, has a very small impact. Washing and pulping maybe add only 5 percent. But if you take it out, the coffee will just be bad.

Dillon:

What’s the number one challenge Kenyan coffee farmers face today? And what will be the number one challenge for them in ten years?

Wycliffe:

The number one challenge for Kenyan coffee is the cost of production. We have a beautiful ​ variety, but for some reason, it has a disease. Coffee berry disease and leaf rust5. Farmers have to spend so much money that when they get these high prices from the buyers, they’ve already spent it. So they end up with very low productivity; the coffee flowers and then the berries drop off, or this year they have a big crop and next year they have a small crop. A Kenyan farmer without some cash flow cannot farm coffee. They need farming finance. Say, 20 percent of Kenyan farmers are better than the rest, making good money from their coffee.

In ten years, I see the farmers who don’t farm coffee with any passion, or who lack access to agricultural inputs like fertilizer, exiting the market. There will be fewer producers, but the few that remain will be farming properly, so it won’t even reduce the amount of coffee that’s produced.

Dillon:

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your work as an agronomist?

Wycliffe:

You learn all your agronomy in the field. When you come out of college, you can teach a farmer nothing. They know more than you. That was the biggest lesson to learn, and I was lucky. After college, I found established farm managers who taught me the actual practicals of farming. Second, most of the time, the people you are teaching already know what you’re teaching them. Sometimes farmers will do things you don’t agree with, but they’ve come to learn that that’s what works. And of course, you’ve got to have passion. Everyone wants a glamorous job with a corner window in a New York City highrise seven hundred stories above the ground. This is interesting work, but it doesn’t look interesting from afar.

Dillon:

What do you want to improve upon in your work this year?

Wycliffe:

The last three years, I’ve been trying to build up a base. I’ve been running around doing the work in the field, and I now have so many farmers that I can’t go see everyone myself. So I want to build and scale systems. I want to train agronomists. I want to make sure we can tell a farmer, “When you sign up with us, you’ll get a once-a-month visit from an agronomist.” The agronomist will go with a checklist, and when I’m sitting in the office I’ll know that farmer X has received this, and this, and this.

The training I got, it’s not written anywhere. You can’t replicate it. I’m building a model that can be improved upon, year after year, to leave behind for future agronomists when I retire in ten years. And I’ll try to find out if the system is working based on empirical data, but also from the farmer’s view.

My biggest frustration is when I deliver the price to the farmer and they’re not happy about it. When I’m caught up between the buyer and the farmer, and they’re both my friends, I’m sometimes lost for words. Farmers don’t always understand the cost of production. But I also get frustrated by the buyers. If they paid four hundred for a coffee last year and they have to buy it for lower this year, it’s difficult to explain that the price of wages has gone up, fertilizer’s gone up, X has gone up. What the farmers don’t take into account is the product.

AJ:

That’s got to be frustrating. But do you use any sort of scoring or quality feedback when talking to farmers beyond, say, the market pressures and everything else that adjudicates the price?

Wycliffe:

I don’t refer to a scoring system when speaking about quality with farmers. If there’s a difference of two points on the SCA [Specialty Coffee Association] scale, it may not show on the Kenyan scale. All Kenyan coffee is scored from 1 to 10. Class 1: the flavor is perfectly clean. Our Class 1 would be between 95 and 100 in your system. Class 2, you take off 5 percent more; you might have 1 percent defect.

Dillon:

Are there coffees out there that get Class 2 scores?

Wycliffe:

Class 2 is very rare, like 1 percent of Kenyan coffees. Class 3 is more common now. What you guys are buying and saying is 87, 88, 89, those are Class 3 in the Kenyan scoring system. Unfortunately, with Class 3 coffees, even at auction, there’s a price variation of almost a hundred dollars.

Dillon:

Per fifty-kilogram bag?

Wycliffe:

Yes. But when classifying these coffees, the Kenyan system doesn’t take into account flavor, only absence of defects. So two coffees, one with winey flavors and another with chocolatey flavors, will be scored the same—whereas the buyer may have a bias to certain flavor profiles. Price is not only subject to class; it’s subject to buyer preferences.

Dillon:

What’s your impression of the specialty coffee industry from the roaster/consumer perspective? Do you think the vision is aligned with the Kenyan specialty coffee farmer’s interests?

Wycliffe:

No, because the definition of specialty is quite subjective, and explaining that to the farmer is very difficult. As we said, they get a very high price for a very small percentage of their coffee, and a shitty price for the rest.

AJ:

So from your perspective, are roasters crazy to seek a specific standard of quality?

Wycliffe:

Not crazy, but if you haven’t defined it yourself, you can’t describe it to the people who are supposed to produce it. Let me tell you my future vision for the industry: as a farmer, I need to be able to cup against you. When I send you my sample, I should tell you, “I scored this.” Maybe you dispute it. But if I’m sending you a sample that I have no idea about, and you’re only telling me how it tastes, then how can I argue? If the farmers were quality cuppers themselves, I think it would assist a lot.

Dillon:

What type of impact do coffee roasters have in the field, at origin, on coffee farmers and cooperative managers?

Wycliffe:

It depends. Many are like tourists; they greet them and say, “I bought your coffee last year.” But some really come with input. I’ve had traders and roasters say, “We cupped your coffee last year, it was very nice, it had these attributes, it had only this defect.” People come and say, “On arrival, it didn’t hold very well.” People need to come like you are coming. When you speak with the farmer, you need to give them both the positives and the areas for improvement. And if you give those to an agronomist like myself, I can say, “I think the coffee faded because it was dried very fast,” or “We milled it,” or “We didn’t polish enough.”

Dillon:

What was your first impression of Mie before you began working together?

Wycliffe:

I met her when she was working for Sucafina. She wanted to go to the field and spend two nights out driving herself across the Mt. Kenya region. When she came back, we sat down and agreed on the best model: visit farmers, make quality with them, find a buyer for each farmer. First, match the buyer and the farmer from initial quality, and then hopefully every year the buyer gets better and more coffee from the same farmer. They get the first chance to buy that farm’s coffee. So that’s how we’ve developed. More and more buyers are joining the group, and more and more farmers too. So every year we’re getting new relationships off the ground. It helps that she knows lots of roasters and traders; it helps that I know a lot
of farmers.

Dillon:

What’s your favorite type of music to listen to while driving around Kenya?

Wycliffe:

I listen to old-school soul—Lionel Richie. And all the old good guys, like Billy Ocean. But I also listen to African rumba.

Dillon:

How do you make your coffee at home?

Wycliffe:

I drink all my coffee at the office. 

Note 3: Ruiru 11 is a high-yielding coffee variety resistant to coffee berry disease (CBD). The disease wiped out approximately half of Kenya’s coffee production in 1968. Ruiru 11, released in 1985, is a hybrid of several other varieties, including SL28, SL34, Bourbon, Rume Sudan, and Catimor.
Note 4: Milled Kenyan coffees are graded, sorted, and rated by seed shape and density. The letter grade refers to the diameter measurement of a given lot as determined by the screens through which the coffee is sifted. AA lots are 7.2mm in diameter, AB lots are a combination of A lots (6.8mm) and B lots (6.2mm), and C lots are slightly smaller than AB lots. PB lots are made of peaberries, which occur when a single seed grows in a coffee cherry rather than the more common pair.
Note 5: Coffee berry disease is the result of a fungus infection in the Coffea arabica plant. The fungus, Colletotrichum kahawae, causes underripe coffee cherry to drop from the plant prematurely. Coffee leaf rust is also symptomatic of infection by a fungus, in this case Hemileia vastatrix, which covers the leaves and reduces the plant’s photosynthesis rate until it cannot produce enough energy to survive.

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