As a talented taster, Q grader, barista trainer, sensory judge, soon-to-be roaster and tireless campaigner for gender equity, Mbula knows a thing or two about coffee. In a quick chat with 25, we asked her about her work in the industry throughout Africa and her outlook on the future of coffee on the continent.
You have expertise in many parts of the coffee business. What do you do today?
I recently set up Utake Coffee, the first SCA Premier Teaching Campus in Kenya. We run coffee courses, calibrate existing Q graders and run consultancy on coffee-related issues such as gender and coffee, climate change, and productivity. I work in collaboration with the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) and the International Trade Centre. I am also a member of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). I plan to start roasting and trading Africa’s best coffees in the very near future.
Women are the backbone of any economy, especially if it is agriculture-driven. When they understand their role and potential and feel included and fairly treated, the results are tangible.
What direction do you see African coffee moving in?
We are the origin of coffee and we are privileged to be able to share it with the world. But the sharing should transform this continent through meaningful trade and development. Production-wise, there is a lot of unexplored potential in areas that can produce coffee. There is room for growth in productivity if best agricultural practices are taught, implemented and upheld as the norm. Value addition can ensure more economic value remains in Africa to help grow the continent. The market for domestic consumption has great potential and in addition toensuring product knowledge and understanding, it can engage more young people with the coffee industry in Africa, which makes it more sustainable in the long run.
Much of your work has focused on empowering women in African coffee. How can this empowerment change coffee in Africa?
Women are the backbone of any economy, especially if it is agriculture-driven. When they understand their role and potential and feel included and fairly treated, the results are tangible. The development and implementation of gender equity programs in Africa have raised the flag on existing inequalities, which is the first step to ensuring they are addressed. Women in coffee in Africa, and around the world, should be aware of the impact of their actions or inaction when participating in the industry. This gives reason to every activity – from the farm tended, to the cherry picked, the defect selected, the coffee cupped, to coin earned.
The formation and development of recognized IWCA chapters in Africa that bring coffee women together and allow them to learn from each other, compete with each other and grow together has been phenomenal. In a male-dominated industry such as coffee, and especially in Africa, it has been particularly important to understand the concepts of gender equity and culture in order to strike the right balance. With equal opportunity for knowledge, resources and remuneration, both genders can thrive and grow the sector together. Striking the right balance can ensure the best of both worlds.
You’re an experienced and talented coffee taster and Q grader. How do you see this profession changing in the future?
I have seen recent inventions that mechanically “taste” and record perceptions of coffees. I have nothing against technological advancement, but there is no replacing a human being. The sipping and spitting is so unique! The difference in every slurp gives you an idea of how each is processing their perceptions, and calibration is what evens out the cupping field. The future might increase the range of flavors and fragrances we can choose from, as witnessed in the recent edition of the Flavor Wheel, and new recording and communication apps and devices might also change. What I see in professional cupping sessions, however, is heart. That’s what will keep it both simple and complex, but never mechanical.