Sustaining coffee producers’ agency in the context of COVID-19

Initiatives seeking to strengthen the agency of coffee producers are being disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. IIED hosted a webinar to look at how one social enterprise has been seeking to create positive social and economic change in Kenya’s coffee industry, the implications of COVID-19 and possible solutions for sustaining progress.

Thierry Berger's picture Emily Polack's picture
Insight by 
Thierry Berger
Emily Polack
Thierry Berger is an associate and Emily Polack is a senior researcher in IIED’s Natural Resources research group
04 August 2020
Two women sitting down and speaking to each other.

Vava Coffee and Gente Del Futuro have been providing training for women in Moshi, Tanzania (Photo: copyright Jim Bishop)

Vava Coffee is a social enterprise in Kenya that aims to tackle barriers to an inclusive, fair and sustainable coffee sector. Its main focus is promoting access and agency for women and young people in the coffee supply chain. With the advent of COVID-19, Vava Coffee faces unprecedented challenges.

IIED hosted a webinar to consider how the global pandemic has impacted Vava Coffee and its producers, and how they can overcome those challenges.

The webinar panellists were Vava Angwenyi, creator of Vava Coffee; Holly Kragiopoulos, owner and director of Vava Coffee’s UK partners North Star Coffee Roasters (North Star); and Brian Oduor, a young farm manager at Vava Coffee, currently heading the Kisaju-Kipeto organic food project.

About Vava Coffee and its partners

Vava Angwenyi set up Vava Coffee in 2009 and has provided capacity building and training to more than 30,000 Kenyan coffee producers and has purchased from over 14,000 of them to date.

Vava is also a co-founder and director of Gente del Futuro (People of the Future), a partnership between Vava Coffee, APK in Tanzania and Oro Molido in Colombia. The partnership aims to empower women and young farmers and create a viable future for coffee producers.

Vava Coffee works with North Star, an award-winning coffee roastery, academy and coffee shop based in Leeds, in the north of the UK.

Promoting the agency of women and young coffee producers

Vava Angwenyi said that agriculture is an important sector in Kenya, but there are many barriers to entry for women, including the fact the men own nearly all the land.

Eighty per cent of the population is below the age of 35 and the vast majority are unemployed. Young people are leaving rural areas, and the average age of coffee producers is gradually increasing, which is an issue for the future of the industry.

It was in this context that Vava Angwenyi started a social enterprise with the aim of disrupting the coffee sector and enhancing sustainable livelihoods for smallholder farmers, focusing on women and young people. Vava Coffee seeks to integrate more women and youth into the coffee supply chain by directly linking them to markets.

Vava Coffee seeks to create strong relationships with the coffee-producing communities and support them with a range of initiatives. 

Storytelling is used to capture producers’ experiences, and can be used to communicate their realities to domestic and international buyers – particularly to those who are prioritising traceability but also want to ensure a 'profitable' price. Vava works with producers to understand their production costs to inform price negotiations with buyers.

These approaches have facilitated relationships with buyers such as North Star that pay premium prices for ‘specialty’ grade coffees.

Vava Coffee has also created Africa’s first women-only fair trade certified coffee that is traceable to two women’s groups in the Rift Valley.

Watch a recording of the webinar above or on IIED’s YouTube channel

Brian Oduor pointed out that coffee prices are key to encourage farmers to grow this crop. Vava Coffee has gathered data on production costs to understand what a sustainable price is for coffee producers.

Holly Kragiopoulos explained that the prevailing market price is not sufficient and North Star wants to participate in a supply chain that is paying a price that is rewarding both quality but also the true production costs.

Some producers are interested in roasting their own coffee and setting up local business to give them additional revenue. Vava Coffee (via Gente del Futuro) has been providing training which ranges from the technical (such as how to grow coffee beans and improve quality) through to leadership and entrepreneurship.

Vava Coffee has a roasting facility that some producers use. Vava Coffee and North Star have also paid for scholarships for women and young people to help them access other jobs in the coffee industry – sensory analysis and exporting for instance.

Sustaining production and support at times of crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Kenya’s coffee industry. Producers are seeing orders being cancelled and reduced.

Vava Coffee continues to engage in sustainable coffee projects. It has been providing coffee producers with funding to cover expenses during harvest and has been supplying them with personal protective equipment. Vava Coffee is also working with longstanding partners North Star, which has continued to support local producers by purchasing their coffee. 

Livelihood diversification for resilience

With support from Gente del Futuro, Vava Coffee had been implementing projects teaching women and youth how to grow other crops to diversify their income. This has been particularly key in the current crisis.

Oduor spoke about his experience as head of the Kisaju-Kipeto organic food project. He highlighted opportunities for young people, in particular, who are trained to produce organic food that can be consumed by local communities.

Vava Coffee has also encouraged women to produce biogas via cow dung and promoted improved animal husbandry practices to reduce costs and increase revenue.

What next for coffee producers?

Traceability is essential for producers and retailers of specialty coffee, so they can justify higher prices. Kragiopoulos said it isn’t easy to guarantee that all the coffee they sell comes from the same producers; this is one of the reasons why North Star has built a long term relationship with Vava.

Vava Coffee and Gente del Futuro are working with companies that are developing digital applications for improving traceability (including farmerline and and hope to implement the technology soon.

To measure the impact of their projects, Angwenyi said that Vava Coffee and North Star use the price paid to producers, as well as the production costs and environmental standards. There may be other metrics to assess how interventions can support producers and their resilience. 

Vava Coffee and its partners are using social media to share stories from producers to get their voices out.

Kenya is not a coffee consuming country and Vava Coffee is also encouraging local consumption – which may help to increase producer incomes.

Additional resources

The webinar was part of IIED’s Empowering Producers in Commercial agriculture (EPIC) initiative, funded by UK Aid from the UK government through its Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness (CASA) programme.  EPIC aims to empower rural producers and wider communities to influence public decisions and private sector conduct for locally beneficial and more sustainable investments in commercial agriculture.