‘Enjoyed by Those Who Grow It’: Wangeci Gitata-Kiriga And Kenya’s Coffee-Drinking Revolution


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Kenya produces some of the world’s most renowned coffees, sought after by specialty roasters for their clarity, acidity, and complexity. And while coffee from Kenya is enjoyed worldwide, coffee consumption within the country remains low. 

Instead, many residents, of all ages, turn to tea as their caffeinated beverage of choice, and when they do drink coffee, it’s mostly instant. But things are beginning to change: more shops and roasteries are opening nationwide, and a new generation of coffee enthusiasts has emerged. This allows more Kenyans—and, crucially, farmers —to taste great coffee.

One of the aims behind the founding of Nairobi-based Revolutionary Coffee was to allow Kenyan coffee producers to try their own coffee easily. “Specialty coffee should be enjoyed by those who grow it,” says Wangeci Gitata-Kiriga, the CEO of Revolutionary Coffee

Revolutionary Coffee is a Nairobi-based roaster sourcing coffee from producers in Kenya, and Gitata-Kiriga aims to get the coffees that she sources back into the hands of farmers to enjoy. One of her goals is to ensure that what the farmers drink “reflects the kind of work and commitment that they put into that cup.”

Jump in the Car and Go

Gitata-Kiriga is the daughter of coffee farmers. “I grew up on a coffee farm,” she says, “so there’s a little bit of nostalgia there. But one of the things that really prompted me to start Revolutionary Coffee was this notion that we keep exporting our best [coffees out of Kenya]. We are not enjoying the best of the best because we’re so quick to export … one of the things that I really want to do is to make sure that we are enjoying specialty coffee at home.”

Revolutionary supplies cafes and restaurants around Kenya, and Gitata-Kiriga says plans are underway to open a cafe. While sourcing green coffee has been relatively easy due to Gitata-Kiriga’s proximity to farms (“I just jump in the car and go,” she says), it has also posed some unexpected challenges.

“What has been interesting when we’ve had these conversations [about buying coffee] has been the surprise—the surprise that I want to buy export-quality coffee for the local market,” she says, reflecting a common practice within many coffee-producing countries: because coffee prices are often linked to quality, many of the best coffees are sold and exported outside of the countries they’re produced. 

Gitata-Kiriga says that buying—and paying higher prices—for quality coffee is both a shakeup for producers and consumers. “So on the one hand, you’ve got the farmers surprised that you’re ready to pay for export coffee at the dollar price,” she says, “and then you’ve got the consumers who are like, ‘Hang on a second; how come your coffee is so expensive?’ I’m like, ‘Because it’s great coffee!'”

A Link to Kenya’s Past

The name Revolutionary Coffee partially refers to Kenya’s colonial past and how the British used coffee to discourage resistance: the British government banned Kenyans from growing coffee until 1955. “It wasn’t until we were fighting for independence and the state of emergency was declared that [the British] allowed Africans to grow cash crops like tea, coffee, and pyrethrum [a type of chrysanthemum flower that produces a natural insecticide],” says Gitata-Kiriga.

Even then, Gitata-Kiriga says British attitudes towards Kenyan coffee growers were callous and flippant—and making concessions to growers continued to be a way to maintain control. “It was seen as a distraction, where you’re being given leeway to earn some income, so you focus on the income earning and not so much on the agitation for full independence,” she says. “So that was the rationale behind the name Revolutionary because it was this radical change that was tied to the financial empowerment of Africans through this particular crop of coffee.”

Coffee and colonialism are closely intertwined. In many producing countries, coffee was first introduced by colonizers looking to extract wealth from their territories. Coffee grew on plantations controlled by the ruling classes and worked by enslaved people or indentured servants, and the resulting crops were exported to Europe to fuel the Industrial Revolution. The wealth created from coffee flowed north to fill the coffers of Spain, France, Great Britain, and other imperial nations.

The modern coffee industry still reverberates with echoes of its colonial past. One of the most visible remnants is the general lack of consuming culture in countries most known for producing coffee. With a few notable exceptions—Ethiopia, for example, has a long history of coffee consumption—domestic consumption remains relatively low in countries that depend on coffee exports for a large percentage of their gross national product. 

As mentioned before, if people in coffee-producing countries do consume coffee, they tend to drink lower-quality beans or instant coffee—higher-quality beans get shipped abroad, although that’s beginning to change not just in Kenya but in other coffee-growing countries. Places like Vietnam and Colombia have growing specialty coffee scenes, and in Guatemala, annual domestic consumption doubled between 2014 and 2019.

Still, in African coffee-producing countries, most coffee is still grown for export. More than 12 million households across the continent depend on coffee as their primary source of income. So there’s an incentive to sell their crop for the highest price, usually to the United States, Europe, or Asia. 

Initiatives such as the Africa Coffee Facility, set up by the International Coffee Organization along with the Inter African Coffee Organisation and Centre for Agriculture & Biosciences International, intend in part to grow domestic consumption as a hedge against global price fluctuations.

Finding Ways To Grow and Thrive

Despite the push to increase in-country consumption, coffee quality in Kenya’ has declined in recent years. Gitata-Kiriga puts this down to a lack of institutional investment and land use pressures as cities expand. Kiambu County, which produces some of Kenya’s best coffee, is right outside Nairobi, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities.

“With the growth of the city and the rate of urbanization, the price of real estate and the value of the land has far outstripped any earnings that farmers could get from their coffee,” she says. “Farmers do the math, and they’d rather put up a block of flats and know what their income is than be subject to global commodity pricing. So what has happened is that a lot of these areas that had beautiful coffees have moved away from coffee farming and have turned coffee into concrete.”

At the same time, neighboring coffee-producing countries are ramping up production. Uganda has invested heavily in increasing coffee production and has become Africa’s largest exporter of robusta; Ethiopia is also working to increase its coffee output

Gitata-Kiriga notes the lack of government support in sustaining production. “We haven’t had that kind of motivation or that kind of government policy that is really trying to incentivize farmers to increase coffee production,” she says. The government attempted to address the country’s coffee issues in 2023 by implementing new reform measures, but that quickly caused turmoil, and the country’s central auction house shut down.  

In the face of all these obstacles, Gitata-Kiriga remains hopeful that increasing domestic consumption will encourage more investment in the industry. Kenyans are starting to drink more coffee—consumption in the country tripled over the past decade—but the trend toward specialty is still mostly confined to the cities.

“There’s a really supportive coffee community [in Nairobi],” but it still remains very urban,” she says but notes that, while the coffee community is growing, growth has mostly been confined to cities—but she does see glimmers of specialty poking through. “We do have some good specialty coffee available in supermarkets, and we’re also starting to find coffee shops in producing areas. We’re seeing them in Meru, Nyeri, and Nandi Hills—the fact that these [coffee shops] are there is very exciting.”

Gitata-Kiriga remains forever connected to coffee through her family’s farm. “When I told my mum that I was going to start this company, she was very excited because she thought that I was going to get into coffee farming,” she says. “And I said no, I did not want to get into coffee farming. I wanted to be on the value addition end of it. But I did tell her that if her coffee meets our specialty coffee specifications, we shall happily buy some. She didn’t take too kindly to that!”

So the question remains: did she source coffee from her family farm? As it turns out, the coffee did “cut the mustard. We will have a limited edition coffee from her farm.”

This story originally appeared on The Pourover, a newsletter written by Fresh Cup contributor and Coffee News Letter author, Fionn Pooler. Cover photo by Clint McKoy.

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Fionn Pooler

Fionn Pooler is a coffee roaster and freelance writer currently based in the Scottish Highlands who has worked in the specialty coffee industry for over a decade. Since 2016 he has written the Pourover, a newsletter and blog that uses interviews and critical analysis to explore coffee’s place in the wider, changing world (and also yell at corporations).

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