Mbula Musau on the specialty coffee road to prosperity in Africa

While some of East Africa’s coffees may be coveted for their characteristics, those beans represent only a fraction of the coffee sold on the market, as just 10 per cent of the region’s coffee meets specialty coffee standards. There is one woman in Africa who is now looking to change that figure. Mbula Musau is the continent’s first certified Q instructor, and she sees huge potential for the role that specialty coffee can play. “Already Africa is known to be the home of uniqueness when you talk of coffee, due to the various climates, varietals, altitudes, processing methods, soil and culture,” Musau says. “Ensuring that the coffees meet specialty standards can only help improve the livelihoods of the producers as they will earn more per pound for specialty coffee.” In addition to the extra money earned from selling coffee at a higher premium, specialty coffees are more likely to be cultivated using socially responsible and agriculturally sustainable practices. Not only does this help to preserve the land for future use, specialty farmers benefit from larger markets as their practices often make them eligible for certification under schemes such as Fairtrade, Utz, Rainforest Alliance and 4C. “Buyers and markets are now fully aware of this and in the spirit of social and environmental responsibility, are willing to pay a higher price for coffees that comply,” she says. Musau is well placed to be leading the push to specialty in Africa. Like many great careers in coffee, hers began purely by chance. As she prepared to begin her undergraduate degree in commerce and marketing in Nairobi in 1999, Musau happened to walk past the construction site for what was set to become Kenya’s first specialty coffee shop, Nairobi Java House (NJH). The chance encounter turned into a job and by the time Musau finished her degree, it had developed into a full-blown career. Musau became NJH’s Head of Coffee Department, a role that saw her training staff and clients and sourcing the finest coffee from throughout Kenya and Ethiopia.
Musau’s commitment to building the business, as well as her growing passion for quality coffees, drove her to register NJH with the Eastern African Fine Coffee Association (now the African Fine Coffee Association, or AFCA). It was around this time that Musau began to be involved with the US-based Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) through training and cupping events that helped her to build her expertise in the field. In 2007, Musau began working for EAFCA, and was put in charge of implementing quality programs and trade and marketing activities for the Association.
While at EAFCA, Musau began training for the highest qualifications in coffee quality, a journey that has taken her all around the world and has now led to her making history as the first African to become an internationally certified Q Instructor. This means that, as well as participating in the Q program as a grader of coffee according to CQI’s Q Coffee System, Musau can now also train new Q graders to help spread the potential for African coffee growers to have their crops graded and, if successful, sold around the world as specialty coffee. The CQI’s grading system has been devised in conjunction with the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) to provide a benchmark against which coffees can be measured in order to qualify for classification as specialty coffee. This requires that the coffee in question achieves a score of at least 80 points against the quality criteria set by the CQI and the SCAA. Musau became a grader of Arabica coffee in 2009, and in 2011 she completed her training to also become an R Grader, which is the equivalent program for high quality Robustas. As a side note, there are only three Robustas in the world that are R certified, and all are grown at the Sethuraman Estates in India. While Musau is enthusiastic about the potential for this specialty trend to positively impact on the lives of African coffee producers, she is also wary that it needs to be closely monitored to ensure that what is being promoted is actually happening on the ground. “There needs to be a completely traceable process between producers and markets through strong relationships between the two,” she says. “This is currently happening in certain countries through several certification and verification schemes that are working for coffee sustainability, both as individual institutions and also recently in cooperation. However, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers affected and the system developments required to ensure this happens.” Another of Musau’s driving passions is recognising the role of women in the African coffee industry. Musau has worked with a number of organisations examining these roles and looking at how women’s lives can be improved through involvement in the industry. In 2008, Musau worked with the International Trade Centre, which is a joint agency between the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, on a report looking at these specific issues. The report found that while women perform some 70 per cent of the labour involved in coffee production, there are still myriad issues around gender equality that need to be addressed for that involvement to translate into real improvement in quality of life. “We have come a long way by recognising the need to engage women and give them the required motivation and remuneration,” she says. “However we still need more advocacy and lobbying on legislative issues that affect women in the industry, such as land issues, access to credit and ownership of coffee and proceeds and decision making. These need to be made more fair and equitable to ensure optimum benefit to families, society and the sector in general. Some countries are further ahead on this issue than others.” She also advocates the implementation of affirmative action practices to build the capacity of women to effectively and efficiently work in the coffee industry at various levels. “Creating slots for women in training, leadership and participation in workshops, events and conferences would enable more participation,” she says. The IWCA is one organisation looking to make a difference on this front. The IWCA has chapters in several countries such as Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya, and are in the process of developing strategies to empower the women in coffee in these respective countries. However, Musau says that efforts on these issues need to be balanced with recognition of the traditional roles that many women are still required to play in their communities. “This is because their other roles in the family and domestically, for example, are critical but sometimes clash, and need to be addressed just as importantly if not more,” she says. Today, Musau works as an independent consultant across the East African region. Musau says that the current coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America presents some unique opportunities for the coffee industries of Africa. “It is envisaged that production will decline by 30 per cent for the next five years,” she says. “African producers need to step up to the plate and ensure that the world coffee demand is met. They stand to gain even more.” 

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