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Rift Valley Redemption

Election seasons can be intense whether you are in America or Kenya. Natural human expressions like culture and identity are often thrown into conflict as politicians and powers play on narratives to push forward our ultimate hopes and convictions. This dynamic is woven into the fabric of humanity as these forces can lead toward peace and unity or unleash division and violence. 

But there is hope and opportunity for all of us to be freed from the oppressive narratives that drive us against each other and open a meaningfully connected world that refuses to be contained. A place in Kenya reminded me of this just before the world took an epic turn.

Kevin with Karuthi Manager James

Before the year of 2020 fully revealed itself I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya in late January to visit our friends at the Karuthi Factory but also to explore a new frontier in Kenyan coffee alongside Ben Carlson from Burundi’s Long Miles Coffee Project.

Ben and I tend to get excited about similar things. We love new challenges and experiences we can share with others so bringing the Long Miles way to the exciting coffee origin of Kenya is a project I knew Saint Frank needed to be present in with first boots on the ground. 

After visiting Karuthi in Nyeri we traveled west away from the more established regions around Mount Kenya and ventured into Kericho County of the Rift Valley. A trusted friend had given us direction into this area as we sought out a new emerging region thus far undeveloped and disconnected.

Kericho is tea country. Rolling hills of neon green fields capped with Eucalyptus trees reminiscent of traveling through Burgundy of France while being a world apart in it’s unique African charm. Corporate tea culture, cold temperatures and high winds at soaring elevations above 2,200 meters have historically deterred coffee production as being unsuitable for the scale of production required to match that of the world’s largest commodity tea plantation. 

Kericho Tea Fields

But our source was on to something because at such high elevations there is enough warming wind patterns from Lake Victoria that create a stunning microclimate for extraordinary specialty coffee. We met with the elders of a community and coffee cooperative whose recent efforts to capture their terroir with better practices have yielded stunning results.  But the stature of Kericho’s tea culture isn’t the only controlling narrative that has held Rift Valley coffee captive.

The wise and honorable leaders of this coffee cooperative shared with us their hope for the future of specialty coffee to bring change and opportunity to their region and their communities.  They also gave us insight into the cultural and political challenges they face preventing them from breaking through barriers of fear and stigma.  This region is the most ethnically diverse in all of Kenya reflecting the richness of the Rift Valley in its representation of the different tribes and ethnic groups of Kenya. 

But riches of diversity are also often confronted with the dark side of humanity in those forces of culture and identity vulnerable in their capacity toward expressions of conflict and division.

In the 2007 election crisis of Kenya this region was the center of tragic violence between some of these ethnic groups as opposing candidates and parties played on differences for their own ends inciting conflict and violence.  The history of similar tragedies in previous elections have led many to avoid the region and withhold engagement and investments thereby leaving the beauty of their diversity and terroir to be looked over and avoided rather than celebrated and developed in its unique expression. 

As we sat and broke bread with these humble and passionate leaders I was compelled by their sincerity and their resilience.  We were not among a broken and dangerous people who were not worth the efforts, investments, and risks as we would later be told by European executives.  We were among wise and determined leaders who represented the hopes and future of this extraordinary place. 

The next day they would lead us to experience the terroir of their hills and fields for extraordinary coffee.  We visited an old monastery once full of life, production, and energy. . . energy you could still feel had not left the land or this place.  Hiking through fields of potential and up a wooded creek we topped out at the home of a forest keeper whose family seems to have lived at the edge of the protected forest for decades, indeed they had.  They spoke of the old monks who had left long ago with affection and reverence remembering the quiet bustle and life energy of the farming that once covered the land including the various neighbors of different tribes in their work.

You could feel a still flickering hope and memory that touches what could become new.

We later met with the European executives who had arranged a Kenyan agronomist to travel and consult for us on the potential for quality in the region.  They gave us their own personal feedback that this region was not worth the effort and that we should find an easier path as their Kenyan agronomist sat silent.  To say the meeting was a discouragement is an understatement but their logic was not about quality and potential in the coffee but an indictment of the people. 

But that discouraging meeting could not extinguish and diminish what we saw and what the agronomist saw in his full and enthusiastic support throughout our journey.  He later called Ben and with passionate conviction said, “do not listen to these small men” as he pledged his full support and confidence in this project.  He could see it.  We could see it. 

After returning to Nairobi I visited our inspiring Kenya exporting partners at KCCE (Kenya Cooperative Coffee Exporters) with a full heart and imagination.  I had come to taste the 2020 harvest of our partners at the Karuthi Factory after having visited there on the way to Kericho.  

But I had come all the way to Kenya and Phyllis wanted me to taste more than just the Karuthi harvest outturns. 

Two coffees stunned me on those tables with the familiar excotic tastes of what we have come to know in the classic profiles from the slopes of Mount Kenya but these had something else that was altogether new.  There was a more elegant harmony with beguiling aromatics of dark floral and cocktail bitters I had never experienced before.

I had to know where these coffees were grown, I was so curious!

“Ahh, did you like them? Good!” Phyllis added, “These are new coffees from Kipkelion and today is our first time tasting them after our suggested improvements in Kericho County.  This is a new region for many people but we believe they have good potential.”  I was speechless.  What a moment, what affirmation, what confirmation!

This year along with our Karuthi we are offering two new coffees from Kericho County and the Kimologit Farmers Cooperative Society: Kapluso and Siret. Consider these a foretaste of the incredible coffee and unfolding story that is already revealing itself in the Rift Valley. 

This year has been full of anxiety and tension.  We have all been made aware of competing narratives and the cultural political forces at work behind them.  But as powerful as they are all of it is part of our journey and in the midst of fear and confusion there is hope. 

There is an extraordinary world among us and in us we can’t always see.  There is an everyday extraordinary world in a beautiful cup of coffee that sometimes is an affirming comfort and sometimes is a surprising window that confirms something new.