Most avid coffee drinkers can easily name their favourite brand, but the producers behind their beloved drink – the farmers – usually go unrecognized and underpaid. For East African women in the trade, the discrepancy is even worse, as they comprise the majority of the labour force but own the smallest percentage of land.
Margaret Nyamumbo, founder and CEO of specialty coffee company Kahawa1893, compares the relationship of coffee farmers and coffee brands to music artists and record labels. The musicians may sing on the track, but their masters, the money, and the credit for their work are held by the record labels. Her approach is to disrupt the industry by putting the power back in the hands of the coffee farmers and empowering consumers to make equitable choices.
Creating the future by looking back
Through her San Francisco-based brand, Nyamumbo addresses the inequalities in coffee production while promoting the gift that is this quintessentially African drink. In an industry sorely lacking in representation at all levels, she’s blazing a trail as the first Black woman owner of a coffee brand in the United States, and the first owner to be from a coffee-producing country.
Recently, her company also made history as the first Black woman-owned coffee brand to be sold at Trader Joe’s, providing a larger platform to bring a highly desirable and socially conscious product to market. “I’ve always been comfortable being the “first” or the only Black woman in the room, so a lot of the accomplishments in my journey have felt different, but familiar at the same time,” she notes. “I enjoy being an example for others.”
Nyamumbo and her siblings were raised on her grandfather’s coffee farm in Kenya by parents who were farmers and entrepreneurs. Because of her upbringing, coffee has always been a part of her lifestyle, although her relationship with it evolved rapidly — she went from drinking coffee in college to stay awake to wondering why she wasn’t seeing her country’s roasts in the US where she attended Harvard Business School and later went on to work at the World Bank.
The former Wall Street financier also noticed a disconnect between the prices Americans paid for coffee and the amount of money going back to coffee farmers. “There was this contrast between the growth of specialty coffee in New York where people were paying five, ten dollars a cup and the reality of coffee farms back home where farmers were being paid lower than what they got in the 1960s.”
Reclaiming coffee culture
Since starting her business in 2018, appreciation for Kahawa1893’s blends has grown steadily and Nyamumbo notes that new fans have been receptive to exploring the connection points between themselves and coffee farmers. Customers are even encouraged to support the farmers by using a QR code on the packaging to tip them directly. “Coffee is a tool for economic development that has really been underinvested,” she explains. “It just needs the right investment.” This approach underscores one of her company’s focuses: helping other producing countries reclaim their roles in global coffee culture.
Though the brand is still evolving, their immediate goal is to increase their distribution around the world to set an example for other producing countries looking to reclaim control of their role in global coffee culture. The company’s name is a nod to the beginnings of commercial coffee production in Kenya and the richness of a region that has birthed one of the most sought after kinds of coffee in the world.
“Kenyan coffee is considered the crown jewel,” says Nyamumbo. “It’s considered the best, and in terms of its status in the world it’s compared to French wine because it can’t be replicated anywhere else.” The secret to its distinct taste lies in the unique microclimate and soil mix within the East African country and the processing method itself. Across the nation, farmers “wash” the coffee cherries by removing the seeds before the coffee beans are dried out in the sun, resulting in a crisp, refreshing flavour with citrusy notes.
Currently, the brand offers a variety of roasts to suit all palates, with blends from Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, and Ethiopia. As for the best way to enjoy it, Nyamumbo suggests drinking the coffee black or with milk and mandazi, an airy Kenyan donut.
Brewing a global legacy
Kahawa1893 reminds consumers of the sensational quality of the Kenyan coffee crop and seeks to inspire a new level of appreciation for authentically African products. In selling such a recognizable drink, the brand is leading the way for other African food brands to bring their concepts to market. “As Africans, we aren’t at the head of the global brands who use the continent’s raw materials to make a range of products — how is this possible?” she wonders. “I hope our success will inspire other African-owned brands to change the narrative about what’s possible.”
Now that she’s has made it into Trader Joe’s locations across the US, the sky’s the limit. Back home in Kenya, Nyamumbo’s family are thrilled by her success and the effect it’s had on the wider community. In the future, she hopes to increase distribution and make her coffee more widely available. Tea and chocolate might be on the way as well. For now, the brand’s vibrant packaging is a hit with java lovers of all ages and preferences, and their single-serve coffee bag option takes the complexities out of brewing a perfect cup of joe for busy caffeine-lovers or first-time drinkers.
With Kahawa1893, Margaret Nyamumbo has created a gift that keeps giving back to coffee culture and the entrepreneur has become a symbol of the heights you can achieve when you stay true to who you are.
Read more about the history of coffee farming in Africa here.
Special thanks to Vanessa Hayford for her help with this article.