The Sprudge Twenty interview series continues today with Smayah Uwajeneza, a coffee professional whose career has spanned a broad spectrum of roles, with many more to come. “I have been a professional barista, trainer, roaster, cupper, farmer, trader, competitor, ambassador, and now brand representative,” she tells us. “[But] I aspire to be a CEO/founder leading a company with empathy, authenticity, and humanity.” Mark this down: it’ll happen, and we can’t wait.
“Smayah is the new leadership our industry needs and would be lucky to have. I met Smayah during the 2018 World AeroPress Championship in Australia where she completed as the Kenyan representative on the world coffee stage after winning the East African AeroPress Championship. Smayah’s passion and knowledge for almost every facet of our coffee world is something she is eager to share, with words that make this often gatekept knowledge too technical and unfriendly for people also eager to learn but without a friend to invite them in. She is the leader our industry needs, not only to ‘be the face’ but one to nurture and care for her talents and growth as Smayah keeps expanding in her own journey towards whatever she is passionate about in this beautiful coffee industry.”
Nominated by Kaie Bird
How have the challenges of this last year informed your work?
The challenges of the past year have taught me how to keep my career goals while maintaining the flexibility in times of uncertainty. Take care of myself as well as those around me and stay coffee connected with those that I can barely see.
What issue in coffee do you care about most?
I mostly care about the sustainability of the coffee industry. Coffee and people behind it.
What cause or element in coffee drives you?
I’m more driven by coffee community and taking every opportunity, and to use my personal excellence to continue to support everyone around me will forever be my drive.
What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?
There are quite a long list when it comes to this, but from personal experience of working handy with farmers and being a coffee influencer in my community. I would mention two: Living income and access to coffee education for both coffee producers and professionals (baristas and roasters) in developing countries.
What is the quality you like best about coffee?
Coffee quality is generally described by one examining few characters that are found in it when brewed (aroma, flavor, body, acidity and aftertaste). The quality I like best in my coffee cup should therefore have the following: enticing chocolate, caramel, fruity, and resinous aromas, balanced flavor and acidity, and a clean and sweet aftertaste.
Did you experience a “god shot” or life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your career?
Yes, It was after few months of starting my career as a barista in order to earn money to save for college, that I was sent to visit the farms and collect farmer’s coffee stories and experience, that my whole life was transformed, and the way I perceived coffee first hand. The farmer’s conditions range from mild to extreme. I have had an opportunity to work with individuals and share their stories, individuals who have lived almost their whole lives shoeless, one meal per day, individuals who have to walk miles and miles barefoot carrying coffee cherries on their heads down in the valley washing station with their babies on the back, and so much more in order for us to enjoy a cup of coffee daily and have reasons to be creative. This experience has not only transformed me but it has provided me with valuable insight regarding how I can use my role to make a change in their lives.
What is your idea of coffee happiness?
The idea of coffee happiness to me is knowing that I am enjoying a cup of coffee and farmers are enjoying the fruits of their labor, and that my work is more meaningful and impactful to the whole coffee community.
If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?
My role in the coffee industry has been from a trainee to a professional barista, trainer, roaster, cupper, farmer, trader, competitor, ambassador, and now brand representative. Therefore if I could have any job in the coffee industry, I aspire to be a CEO/founder leading a company with empathy, authenticity, and humanity, empowering and transparent, running ethical transactions that I know for sure that we are giving back to communities and building relationships, empowering and offering multi-generational support and inspiring sustainability.
Who are your coffee heroes?
My first coffee heroes are the women coffee growers that I have worked with for the past six years in Rwanda, who never stop inspiring me to be resilient, hardworking, and champion on a daily basis. And others are all those who are doing a great job every day to continue to build, love, relationship, and foster humanity over the cup of coffee.
If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Such a tough question, the list of living ones is long including Kaie Bird. But I would love to brew and drink coffee with my father, who is dead at the moment—may his soul continue to rest in paradise—because he passed away before he could try the best coffee that could possibly be.
Do you have any coffee mentors?
A lot of them, but to mention a few; there is Agnes Nyinawumuntu, Deeaan Jurgens, Marcus Young, Chelsea Thoumsin, Bill Kennedy, Adam Hashem, Adam Mclean, Lisa Ligon, Kaie Bird, Helen Griffith, Sarah Allen, Al Liu, and Faiza Ahmed.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?
I wish someone would have told me that not everyone I will work with was going to be a supporter.
You’re the first barista on Mars. What’s on your brew bar?
Rwandan coffee beans, AeroPress coffee maker and espresso machine, grinder, cups, water, music, and a big smile.
Best song to brew coffee to at the moment.
Unstoppable by Sia.
Where do you see yourself in 2041?
I am 23 years at the moment, a lot will happen, It is really hard to visualize the whole roadmap right now. However, I think to summarize my roadmap at the moment, there will definitely be a lot of things that are set inside the complex environment I will get to live in—with future Husband, kids, work, Travels, relationships. This assumption is a work in progress as I continue to explore my self-knowledge.
But whatever happens in this path or where I will be twenty years from now will be the result of this simplified vision and how well I can channel energy to arise these things. But for sure the only thing I think it is a safe bet that I imagine on this path is growing older happy and wiser.