The African Fine Coffees Association is Africa’s answer to the Specialty Coffee Association. The organization, who represents stakeholders throughout the value chain in 11 African coffee producing countries, promotes their members through trade promotion, capacity building, and cupping competitions. One of AFCA’s great successes since being founded in 1999 is their annual African Fine Coffee Conference, which is held each year in a rotating member country, and attracts producers, buyers, roasters, and a wide range of other participants in the world of African coffee.
2017 was a hard year for the African Fine Coffees Association Conference and Exhibition, which took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from February 14–18. After months of discussion about the current unrest in the country, and questions over whether the event should still be held, the conference proceeded as planned. Yet, despite the modern conference center and luxurious events, attendees still suffered from less than ideal conditions such as poor internet access (not helped by government social media blockages), insecurity surrounding field trips to coffee growing regions, and endless speeches by governmental officials.
In general, the conference felt like it was stuck in the Africa of yesteryear, rather than focusing on the exciting developments that are currently revolutionizing the African coffee sector, such as traceability, financial inclusion, or advances in agronomy. As one attendee described the conference, “You had scenarios where you had invited people from all over the world, but it became a country by country marketing tool. There wasn’t any content for people to take back from the conference.”
While the conference program offered little to those eager to dig deeper into the world of African specialty coffee, long time attendees knew that the real value of attending the event was not in the official program. Rather than the official speeches and formal proceedings, the real value in AFCA 2017 was found in the corridor conversations, new relationships, and the opportunity to engage directly with producers, exporters, and value chain actors who are often absent from other industry events and discussions. These factors alone ensure that the AFCA conference remains on the African coffee radar.
And so, rather than looking at what could be learned from the conference itself—those returns would be slim—the more important takeaways from AFCA 2017 are found in examining the underlying trends, new business models and signs that the African coffee industry is changing at the same fast pace as the rest of the African continent. Let's explore three of those clear signs of change at AFCA 2017, each with major implications for the future of coffee in Africa.
The demystification of African coffee
African coffee, once exotic, has gone mainstream, and as a result, there were no shortage of small to mid-sized roasters and importers in attendance. Timur Dudkin, the head buyer from Mareterra, a green coffee importer just outside of Barcelona, said that as far as his customers were concerned, “This year is all about Africa.” Dudkin and his team came with a full delegation of nearly 15 people who went on from the conference to tour Ethiopia’s coffee regions.
The Mareterra delegation is a perfect example of Africa’s growing accessibility as an origin to the coffee industry as a whole. While some destinations, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Sudan remain off limits to the average coffee connoisseur, others—such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda—offer infrastructure that provides all the comforts of home. Increasingly the average coffee roaster or barista can hop on a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, do a coffee cupping, visit a washing station, and then spend a few days on safari before returning home with great stories and a few bags of “directly traded” coffee (whatever that means).
In fact, a growing number of roasters and retailers are well acquainted with producing communities, due to advancements in transparency, traceability, and a shortened supply chain. “When you roast dark, you showcase the roaster, when you roast light you showcase the farmer,” shared Lem Butler, 2016 US Barista Champion, with a crowd of coffee fans during a question and answer session hosted by the USAID/World Coffee Events All-Stars Exchange. The program, which hosted “All-Star” baristas and roasters who were invited to come share ideas with their African barista counterparts highlighted the intricate connection between quality on farm and quality in the final cup. The sharing and discourse between the representatives from different countries was a reminder of just how small the world has become.
Likewise, producers no longer need to wait for occasions such as the AFCA to engage directly with consumers and buyers. Mobile technology, blockchain, and social media (outside Ethiopia at least) have created streamlined channels that provide direct access between producers and consumers. This has clear implications for a supply chain allowing more direct engagement between producers and consumers and a refreshing readjustment of power dynamics that might offer new more equitable trading models to the entire industry.
African women to the front
Women do most of the work within the coffee supply chain, yet receive little of the profit or credit. An encouraging sign at AFCA 2017 was the participation of women entrepreneurs in positions of power within the value chain.
One such example is Vava Angweni, the founder of Vava Coffee in Nairobi, a direct-impact-for-profit model company focusing on traceable micro-lots for ethically conscious consumers.
When asked about her experience of being a woman in the male-dominated African coffee industry, Angweni responded, “I look at it as an advantage given what women can bring to the table in terms of persistence in such a tough industry and much-needed passion that the smallholder farmer needs from not just the trading/buyer end but the policy implementation side of coffee. Farmers need more passionate buyers/business people working with them to bring about change.”
For many boutique coffee company owners like Angweni, AFCA offered a valuable opportunity to make contacts and expand her reach. “This was our first AFCA conference,” she told me, “and we decided to attend given our recent entry into the export market and the need to widen our networks within the export market and meet like-minded individuals.”
The new African generation
The most promising development in African coffee may be the new generation of African business people who, like Angweni, are combining their local and international experiences to breathe life into a very promising African coffee sector.
Whether one is returning from abroad to take over the family business, or has merely grown up exposed to new ideas due to the digital age, one thing is certain: the next generation is going to transform Africa, and with it the African coffee industry and the AFCA conference will be forced to change as well.
As one young Ugandan who spent many years abroad put it, “What needs to happen is for the African coffee sector to have a larger voice on the world page. It’s important that the young generations that have studied abroad, come back and be part of the cultural and business changes, to help take Africa as a serious player in the world of coffee.”
Let’s see what happens next year. AFCA 2018 is due to be held in Entebbe, Uganda. The coffee world will anxiously await the positive changes to be seen in next year’s AFCA conference—as well as more signs of the inevitable changes to come in the African coffee industry.