For too long, women in Kenya have not been fairly rewarded for their labor in the coffee industry, but Margaret Nyamumbo—who is the founder of Kahawa 1893—is working to change that. As a third-generation Kenyan coffee farmer, Nyamumbo understands how hard female farmers work and saw that they were largely uncompensated for their labor, owning just one percent of their country’s farmland.
Now, Nyamumbo has her own business based in the San Francisco Bay area and is working to help female farmers, all while ethically bringing delicious Kenyan coffee to the U.S. market. Nyamumbo established a women’s fund, creating a mechanism for customers to tip coffee farmers directly, and the company matches all tips to double the impact.
These funds have been instrumental in bridging the gap between expected and actual earnings from the crop in the 2020-2021 farming season, when yields were 50 percent lower than usual. In this interview, Nyamumbo speaks candidly about what inspires her work and why championing female Kenyan coffee farmers is so important to her.
Unearth Women (UW): As well as being a third generation farmer, you’re a Harvard Business School graduate. How did your unique breadth of experience equip you to understand and address the lack of diversity and equity in the coffee industry?
Margaret Nyamumbo (MN): I grew up on a coffee farm in Kenya. The farm was started by my grandfather after British colonialists introduced coffee to Kenya. I moved to the United States for college and eventually earned an MBA from Harvard and went to work on Wall Street. I was drawn back into coffee by memories of my coffee experience while growing up. I observed that women provided the lion’s share of labor in coffee, about 90 percent, but they had limited means due to cultural norms and gender inequality. My experience working in international development at the World Bank and on Wall Street gave me a unique view on how to apply global solutions to a local context.
UW: How did your childhood experiences of helping on the coffee farm inspire you to fight for equity for women in Kenya’s coffee business?
MN: What was important to me was that the solutions I applied were practical and fit into the cultural context in order to have the magnitude of impact that was generational. The women are unbanked and rely on each other for financial inclusion. They already operated mini-banks by pooling funds together in a ‘pot’ through a mechanism known as table banking. Our goal in creating a women’s fund was to directly support ongoing structures and strengthen them.
UW: Can you tell me about how you work with the farmers and the path to ensuring that Kenyan women can own more of their own farmland?
MN: This isn’t necessarily a direct goal but a by-product of our work. By investing in women and providing a market and value for women-grown coffee, it easily makes a business case for the male member of a household to offer land ownership to the woman. It’s a market-based incentive that works by incentivizing behavior based on economic, social, and environmental returns.
UW: I understand that Kenya has some very mineral-rich soils thanks to an active volcano. What do you want people to know about how and why the soil enhances the flavor of the coffee grown in this region?
MN: Kenya has the ideal micro-climate to grow coffee, analogous to France and wine. The country’s location right on the equator and a combination of volcanic soil and ideal weather produce a distinct cup of coffee that’s not possible anywhere else. The distinct taste of Kenyan coffee is prized and is considered the most celebrated coffee in the world.
UW: Can you tell me more about how you are leveraging blockchain technology and what made you decide to do this?
MN: Part of our innovation was introducing a tipping mechanism. We have a QR code on the back of our coffee bags that you can scan and tip farmers directly using bitcoin or any other digital currency.
UW: The Trader Joe’s partnership is huge for Kahawa 1893! What does it mean to the team to reach this fantastic milestone?
MN: Kahawa 1893 being on the shelves of Trader Joe’s has been exciting for us. This milestone is not just a win for Kahawa 1893 but for all the women farmers that work passionately to bring us delicious coffee that we share with the world. The distribution by Trader Joe’s gives us a bigger platform to celebrate the work of these women and to have a much deeper impact.
UW: Tell me about a typical day (if there is such a thing) for you as CEO.
MN: There is no typical day for me, yet! My day usually starts with a workout in the morning and then I enjoy a freshly made cup of coffee while catching up on emails. Next, I will check with my team for any fires that need to be dealt with. Although my role is strategic, coffee is logistics-heavy and even more-so these days where supply chain disruptions are commonplace.
The fun part of my job is tasting new coffees that we are evaluating for our menu, we call it “cupping” in coffee lingo. My roots are in farming, and I always enjoy this process of tasting the hard work that farmers put in, and thinking of creative ways to share it with customers.
I usually have meetings on the calendar throughout the day. I try to cluster my meetings either in the morning or afternoon so I can have blocks of time to work on strategic elements of the business like marketing, partnerships, finance. At the end of the day, I like to recharge by watching TV and catching up with friends on social media. Social media is both work and play for me as I am always learning new trends and connecting with creators. I also like to cook every day. I have enjoyed learning new recipes from meal kit deliveries and I have become quite efficient, and I love that it’s sustainable and I have cut down on waste.
UW: What sort of trends do you think are next for the specialty coffee industry?
MN: We are in what’s being called the 5th wave of coffee, where specialty coffee is going beyond tasting notes and origin, and consumers are looking for coffee to be part of the solution to pressing social concerns, like racial and gender inequity and the climate crisis. Sustainability and ethical sourcing are now table stakes in the industry.
One exciting trend in the specialty coffee industry is the innovation that’s happening as the industry grows more diverse. As more Black-owned brands enter the industry, we are seeing the cultural trend setting that’s popular in music and sports taking shape in coffee. Black culture intersecting with coffee culture is creating some beautiful new collaborations like sneakers made from coffee grounds.
Gen-Z loves cold coffee, and the explosion of alternative milks is opening up the category to more experimentation and new flavor profiles. There is more permission to innovate and try new things without the burden of “this is the right way to do this.”
UW: How can consumers help to work towards a more diverse and ethical coffee industry?
MN: Consumers can support a diverse and ethical coffee industry by seeking out diverse-owned coffee companies that have the interests of farmers at heart. As a third-generation coffee farmer and diverse-owned brand, the core of our mission is to educate and support consumers who are looking for coffee that has a positive impact.
UW: One last question: How do you take your coffee?
MN: I love to brew my coffee with a French press. I normally drink it hot and black. African coffees are naturally sweet and smooth, no sugar needed. When I enjoy it cold, I add a splash of caramel creamer.