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DR Wakefield and East Africa

East Africa is just one of the many regions DR Wakefield sources its coffee from before selling it on to roasters and blenders to be made into the aromatic cups so many of us love.

Having sourced from the area for over 40 years, DR Wakefield has developed a close relationship with exporters in East Africa. Here, coffee traders Will Hobby and Phil Searle – who have both worked and lived in the region – were asked about how the firm conducts business with the different countries.

What is the history of coffee production in East Africa?

East Africa is regarded by many as the birthplace of coffee since its ancient discovery in Ethiopia. This is just one of the locations DR Wakefield sources its beans from, with Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi also being popular origins from which to purchase them.

The history of coffee production in these countries is rich, with Kenya for instance having commercially grown coffee for more than 100 years, making it an extremely well-established origin. The traders explained: "Kenyan coffee has always been well sought after in the UK," which in part, is thanks to its colonial connections, as well as the coffee's exemplary taste.

Will and Phil added that the founders of DR Wakefield have significant origin experience, so have sourced beans from the region since the company's establishment to bring East Africa's quality coffees to its customers.

How often does DR Wakefield visit the region?

Representatives from DR Wakefield visit East Africa each year, with the most recent trip involving a dual visit to Kenya and Ethiopia.

The traders explained: "We go and see how they're getting on, what has changed since last time, what are the challenges and what plans are in place to overcome them. We monitor their infrastructural projects, and the progress they are making with our shipments. We can discuss buying strategies for the coming season, and check financing is in place to ensure smooth flow of coffee.

"It's a relationship-building exercise. It shows our commitment to them. It shows we appreciate them. And it demonstrates that we are not just price buyers, looking for the cheapest coffee available each year.

"It helps when you do have problems and need to contact them, as it makes it more amenable and personal if you've met them, had dinner with them, chatted with them, even spent ten hours a day driving around the bush with them – it breaks down social barriers."

Who exactly is the relationship formed with?

There is a wide range of people involved in the coffee process from the growth of the beans to when they are ready to be shipped overseas. So who exactly does DR Wakefield deal with?

"We don't always just buy off a single farmer," the traders said, before adding: "There's a limited amount of single estates in East Africa."

They explained the industry there "can be quite fragmented – you have farmers, cooperatives, mills, marketing agents, auctioneers and then the exporters. The legislation in some of these countries does not allow cooperatives to trade outside of the countries. The farmers will sell internally to an intermediary or exporter, who will be the ones to ship it.

"For example, we can deal with a general manager of a cooperative who deals with dozens of primary societies, which in turn have thousands of farmer members."

Coffee is a very important cash crop and foreign exchange earner in many East African countries. In Tanzania, for example, nearly 10 per cent of the population relies on the coffee value chain for an income – almost four million people.

Average yields for coffee producers in East Africa are very low, as decades of neglect, poor pricing and under-investment, combined with multi-cropping with alternative cash crops results in a very organic style of coffee cultivation.

Therefore, as the traders explained: "The best way for them to market their produce is through the cooperative system."

However, depending on the individual East African nation, the time between contracting the coffee and having it shipped can vary significantly. "In Kenya, if you want a container to be shipped out in a certain month, it's pretty much going to be shipped out in that month, but in Ethiopia, there could be a two or three-month delay."

This is due to the logistical challenges that are prevalent in certain developing countries, such as under-investment in the ports, a slow response to resolve power cuts and the lack of attention that is paid to developing national infrastructure.

How does DR Wakefield manage to maintain quality in such a fragmented market?

Although this market structure may appear somewhat complex, DR Wakefield still manages to make sure it continues to source quality coffee from the region. 

The traders said: "We stick to the same, primary cooperatives, because their quality is good and we trust they'll deliver to the high standard that we expect."

Will and Phil went on to explain that in Ethiopia for example, only the very best coffee that the country produces is exported, while lower-grade beans are sold and consumed locally. "In Ethiopia, it's one of the few countries where they drink as much coffee as they export."

DR Wakefield also has an experienced quality team, which ensures only the finest coffee is sold on to roasters for the best possible price.

Dealing with many origins simultaneously, DR Wakefield relies on the experience and trust of its exporters. As the main point of contact, it is much easier to ensure the high standard of quality is met when dealing with an exporter. They are the ones who, on instruction from DR Wakefield, ensure producers are providing the correct beans at the correct time.

What are DR Wakefield's plans for the future regarding East Africa?

The traders were asked about how they could see DR Wakefield's relationship with East Africa developing in the future, revealing there are plans to visit Ethiopia in either December or January.

They explained: "December is a great time to visit as many countries in East Africa are in their harvesting and processing cycle.

"It's always good to go, because things are never going to be perfect. There's always going to be things to discuss and new opportunities to seek out."

Alongside continuing to nurture its relationship with the exporters and farmers in the region, DR Wakefield enjoys the marketing opportunities that visiting other countries brings. Traceability and connectivity are increasing trends within the specialty coffee industry. Being in a position to visually demonstrate where the roasters’ coffee is coming from is an important aspect of marketing coffee.

The traders added: "It's always good when selling coffee to a roaster to be able to not only tell them specifically the geographical coordinates of the producers, the altitude, soil composition and yields, but also show them photos of the farm – it is an invaluable tool."

Although no one can predict yield sizes and changes to the industry in the future, DR Wakefield will continue to maintain its strong relationship with exporters in East Africa to ensure the company's roasters and blenders are provided with high-quality coffee at the best possible price.