North Star and Vava Coffee: there is more to Kenya than notes of lemon and tomato

UK-based roastery stopped sourcing from the same big exporter everyone else uses in Kenya to buy from the same producers every year through Vava Angwenyi. They describe the fun of exploring different regions and flavour profiles and how access to atypical lots helped them carve a niche following of Kenyan coffee lovers.

Source Kenyan coffees

Vava at Chepsangor Hills Estate in Nandi County (Photo: Vava Coffee)

The coffee supply chain in Kenya is famously complex, allegedly corrupt, and reportedly unpredictable. The buying North finds the wide culture gaps hard to breach. So hard that most buyers are either vertically integrated (if they are large enough) or end up relying on the same exporters, usually foreigners. These are presented to the industry as the experts, masquerading the fact that most times, buyers don’t know who else to source from. However, as Holly Kragiopoulos from North Star in Leeds (UK) knows, options do exist. And choosing the road less travelled is worth it.

Holly has sourced coffee through Vava Angwenyi since 2019, three years after meeting her at the Re:co Symposium and learning about her work on costs of production in Kenya. At that time, Holly bought Kenyan coffees from the same sources most specialty roasters and importers do, a large exporter in Nairobi with German roots. The company is known for securing excellent quality coffees and bringing efficiency to a somewhat unstable system. It also helped to shape our perception in Europe of what Kenyan coffee is supposed to taste like, something roasters like Holly are starting to question.   

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Mutai Kinyua's coffee ready to reach final consumers (Photo: North Star)

“It was nearly impossible to get the same coffee every year”

The Leeds roaster started sourcing with more insight into the supply chain most buyers have. In 2011, she spent time in Kenya to research the impact of Fairtrade premiums on coffee communities as part of her university thesis. Later, she joined the then newly founded Falcon Specialty, a division of Falcon Coffees, where she worked for three years. “I was a buyer and ethical coordinator, responsible for identifying additional support that was needed on the side of purchases. They were in-country initiatives to improve infrastructure, climate change resilience, etc”, she remembers. Her partner Alex Kragiopoulos founded North Star in 2013 and she joined in 2015.

Having visited Kenya many times, it always baffled Holly to see that nothing changed for the better. “Not the co-ops, the living conditions, the local pricing… The cost of Kenyan coffee to us was higher than ever and roasters were flying to Nairobi to get the best coffees of the season but there was a piece of the puzzle that was missing”, she says. Despite the access she had by having worked with Falcon and the large exporter, “we were unable to get details on the cost of production and it was almost impossible to get the same coffee every year”, she recalls. For a roaster looking to have an impact, that “was against our buying principles”. When Holly met Vava, this changed. 

Deman Estate in Meru, near Mount Kenya (Photo: Vava Coffee)

Sourcing against the shipping tide
This was a relationship that started with a long courting period. Vava was suspicious of Holly’s interest at first. “I tried to read them because many folks came to me saying ‘We really want to work with you’ only to go silent after getting samples or just sending a rejection”, Vava explains, pointing out that she had numerous DHL bills before getting any business done. “It took them [Holly and Alex] to travel to Kenya for me to trust them”, she starts. “But today this is one of the best relationships I have. Holly is one of the few strong female friends I have in coffee. When I need to ask her something she is all ears.”

The North Star couple flew out to Kenya in February of 2019 and spent a week with Vava when they also ran a couple of workshops for Vava’s youth and gender equity project Gente del Futuro. “It was an atypical trip from the beginning. Usually, you fly to Nairobi and go to Nyeri, which is 1 hour away. This time we were in the car for 10 hours. We were interested in Meru, which is 8 hours from Nairobi. There, Vava introduced us to Mutai Kinyua of Deman Estate”, Holly recounts. Ever since then, North Star has been sourcing through Vava anyway they can, struggling to match the shipping dates of the lots they want to importers’ schedules, which are heavily weighted to suit Central Kenya’s harvest. “The regions are far and the seasons are different, so we literally miss the boat”, she laughs. 

Running a workshop for Gente del Futuro program (Photo: North Star)

Having a positive impact on the supply chain is at the centre of North Star's buying strategy (Photo: North Star)

Not your typical Kenyan coffee at unusual times

In 2021, Holly imported Vava’s coffees through Algrano for the first time as more lots from different parts of the country were being shipped together at an atypical time of the year. We have different shipments organised as Vava is a keen promoter of West Kenya and Rift Valley. “We were not interested in having the ‘best Kenyan’ but in growing the relationship with the same producer. This way you get the opportunity to really explore the diversity of profiles and it’s been an amazing learning experience. We had the impression that Kenya was lemon, tomato and rhubarb and had to rethink it. We had a lot of fun cupping and thinking ‘Wow, it doesn't taste like a typical Kenya!’” 

North Star’s choice of Kenyan coffee is being noticed by their customers. “People responded very well because they could see our involvement”, Holly explains. “They expressed delight that we took a road less travelled to bring them a different coffee.” She also says her clients were surprised to see fresh crop Kenya in November and what she learned from Vava gave her authority to talk about those coffees and seasonality to her customers. “We carved out a sector of Kenyan coffee lovers that appreciate our ability to offer different profiles,” she adds.

Discover Kenya

“Too many roasters perceive quality as ethics", says Holly (Photo: North Star)

Quality x ethics and challenging preconceptions
This strategy was key to North Star because, according to Holly, roasters go to war when it comes to finding the best Kenya. “Quality is so high that this becomes the priority of many roasters. This approach is led by consumers, who will buy Kenyan coffee from multiple roasters and discuss who has the best one. The new season in May is a big deal and a roastery can get lots of kudos for getting the best quality Kenya they can find. But with increasing challenges in the supply chain, hopefully roasters will ask more questions”, she says. “With Vava, I have the confidence that she is working equitably and reinvesting in other community initiatives. That is what was missing for me.” 

Holly also points out that Kenyan coffee ends up being a victim of its own quality. “Too many roasters perceive quality as ethics. Specialty thrives on the narrative that if it’s great quality then the producer must have been paid well.” At the same time, she says that “roasters think they have a good understanding of the supply chain but Vava challenged us”. The narrative that “producers are poor and need the help of responsible roasters is good for sales but it’s designed to maintain a barrier, a feeling of difference between the consumer and the producer. We learned to prioritise their narrative over our own. We ask Vava how she wants us to represent Mutai and the other producers. That is the role we convey as a responsible roaster, to elevate their narrative.”

Seeing potential beyond their spitting cup
For the Leeds roaster, quality is a long game. Holly intends to support Mutai as he seeks technical assistance with processing on his estate ‘Deman’ that can be sometimes lacking when compared to washing stations and factories (“They exist for a reason”) and that when she first bought coffee from Deman it scored 85 points which is “reputable” yet not perceived as particularly high for Kenya. “There is potential. Deman was the first Kenyan coffee we used as a component for an espresso blend and we got it out to people that hadn’t tried Kenya before. The feedback for that particular lot was great because people were surprised to see it working on espresso so well.”

Though Vava played hard to get in the beginning, today she claims roasters like Holly are rare and wish others could also look beyond their spitting cups. “In coffee, you’re lucky when you get people that really see what you are about and that you are doing things differently”, she says, adding that “there are not so many North Stars out there”. Holly introduced Vava to other roasters who now source from her through Algrano. Vava also says she met some “refreshing people” on the platform and invites all roasters to write to her and schedule a call. “I totally love people that want to know how I work! Things are so impersonal sometimes, so I don’t mind having a call with everyone that orders a sample!”

Though she can be suspicious of new buyers, Vava has met some "refreshing" roasters on Algrano (Photos: Vava Coffee)

Source coffees from Vava

Sold out

Kiungu AA - Kathima Factory - Mount Kenya

Vava Coffee Verified Seller

  • Kenya
  • Fully washed
  • 87.0 points
Sold out

Kapkiyai FCS - C

Vava Coffee Verified Seller

  • Kenya
  • Fully washed
  • 86.25 points
Sold out

Chepsangor Hills Estate AB by Rosebella Langat - Nandi County

Vava Coffee Verified Seller

  • Kenya
  • Fully washed
  • 85.5 points

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