Sourcing Coffee in Kenya

2016 is the year Michael and I decided to focus entirely on Ethiopian coffee and on the partnership we’d built with Zelalem. Prior to that, in the USA, we had a small and very earnest consulting company called Catalyst Coffee Consulting (vestiges of which still remain in the world including the World’s First Coffee Marketing Course, which I designed in the first couple months of COVID, 2020) which served coffee producers in a variety of countries, including Colombia, Peru, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

When we made that choice to choose one place to work, to go deep and not wide, we were answering the clear call of destiny. You don’t find a partnership like this many times in your life. And Ethiopia, beautiful Ethiopia, was calling to us.

We built what became Catalyst Trade with a simple vision: change how coffee is traded.

If we could build a working model in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee and a country full of contradictions, corruption, challenges, and bureaucracy, we believed that we could expand that model into other coffee-producing origins. Though there have been countless setbacks, we have never wavered in this quest. In 2022, we were delighted to expand into Kenya and Peru. Careful expansion into new regions and countries—coupled with the decision to deepen our investments in the coffee origins where we are already established—help us to strengthen our equitable model for sourcing more quality coffee and allowing our producer partners to succeed in the long term.

Wideformat landscape photo of Kenyan Coffee Factory

Catalyst Trade’s 3-Stage Model

Stage 1: Intentional Foundation-Building

Listen before you speak.

The first stage in our model is to spend time on the ground, asking questions, observing, and digging in to learn how coffee works in a coffee origin country. Given our unique expertise in Ethiopia, we have a framework for knowledge, and so much of what we are doing is learning how things differ from our experience, whether it is the legal system or the way money changes hands or the unique needs of producers.

For however long it takes, we work with established suppliers to ensure we are quality actors in this country’s supply chain, entering and maintaining relationships with our unique blend of honesty and respect, and bringing these coffees to our customers to build the support for producers in our community.

We’re building the framework here for entering Stage 2 and 3 in the future, and we are figuring out where, exactly, Catalyst Trade can add value. It’s not a given. There are some supply chains that are already being well-served, and we have unique skill sets and abilities which dovetail with particular problems.

As we are primarily adding value by doing our usual obsessive quality control, in-person relationship building, and storytelling, we take a smaller profit margin for coffees in Stage 1 than for coffees in which we are more financially invested, which we think is a just and transparent way to work.

By jumping in and supporting Catalyst Trade’s entry to a new country like Kenya, you are getting in on the ground floor of what will become the most innovative and intentional operation in that country. And you will have a voice as we enter Stage 2, which is where the playbook diverts from standard behavior and gets even more interesting!

Stage 2 - Deepened Investment

While maintaining the relationships we built in Stage 1 (which explicitly means continuing to purchase from those producers and, if they are of the right quality, from the same exporters), Stage 2 is where we begin to hire individuals from this origin country, train them, and build an exciting team of professionals to deepen our work!

Our Processing Specialists add value to our coffee producer partners by regularly traveling to their sites, offering training, and personally overseeing the production of our bespoke coffee lots—then stewarding those lots all the way through to export with greatest care.

We begin to invest in less conventional relationships at this stage. For example, working with coffee farmers in Ethiopia who need access to the market and connecting them with the ideal exporter. Or connecting with a group of coffee farmers with their own micro-mills who need help raising funds for a central coffee factory in Kenya and exporting to a guaranteed buyer.

Our goal is ALWAYS to build each producer relationship until we are able to purchase their ENTIRE production, thus fulfilling our Core Value of Sustainability for both sides.

Stage 2 can last quite some time. We’ve been there in Ethiopia for years! This is an incredibly challenging, enriching way to work which has outsized results in the lives of stakeholders on both sides of the supply chain.

During Stage 2, we lean on our roaster partners more than ever for support and inspiration—and as Catalyst grows, we have more infrastructure to manage both tourism and investment that benefits producers and roasters. The profit percentage we keep for these coffees is higher than those in Stage 1, as we have steeply increased our investment and value adds.

Dennis standing and smiling at camera in coffee field
Kenya Coordinator Dennis Shamala

Stage 3 - Vertical Integration

Depending on the legal structure of the country where we are working, this can take different forms, but it is always our eventual goal.

Just like when we moved to Stage 2, we continue working with and investing into every partner we have united with along the way—but we add a component of vertical integration which means we are able to bring even more coffee to the world and increase our impact on the ground.

We are just entering this stage in Ethiopia, and you’ll hear more about it in the future.

Suffice it to say that our intentions are to offer real financial benefit, equity, and agency to the producer partners that work with the vertically-integrated aspect of Catalyst Trade, and that we believe if done properly this is the key to unlock the ethical, quality, and logistical puzzles that abound in the coffee supply chain.

How long to get here? 10 years. 15 years. 5 years. It depends on many factors, but the point is that vertical integration is the pinnacle to a building that has been carefully, lovingly constructed by many hands along the way and as such offers reward to those same people in the culmination of the process.

Catalyst Trade in Kenya!

To read more about Kenya’s coffee system, check out our update from the ground level, where most of our leadership team along with various key members work with our partners throughout the year. (Stage 1 work with overtones of Stage 2!)

We are excited to continue our expansion into Kenya! It was a cautious step involving years of planning and the hiring of a full time Kenyan employee, Dennis Shamala (pictured above), who spends each growing and harvest season traveling through the coffee factories of Kenya with his ears open and a notebook in hand.

Our first shipment of stunning, sparkling classic Kenya profiles landed in New Jersey on August 24, 2022, and our Account Managers have been sharing samples and vital information ever since.

I’d like to invite you to continue this journey with us. The Catalyst Trade way is to be honest, sincere, generous, and hardworking. We believe that in collaboration with you, our community, we can offer real value to the coffee producers of Kenya and we hope you will join us!

— Emily McIntyre, CEO

Back to Blog