Nairobi coffee roaster that churns out top baristas

Thairu Hashson an instructor at Jowam training center that deals with coffee roasting and training of students in coffee making. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

Jowam Coffee Roasters in Nairobi, a family business that started 16 years ago, has lived by the adage that ‘coffee is the best thing to douse the sunrise with.’

Over the years, they have roasted thousands of kilos of coffee beans, broken into the Arab export market, and ran a coffee bar that attracts Kenyans in droves. Currently, they export 6,000 bags of green coffee every year.

Wesley Yeaman, the head of projects at Jowam Coffee Roasters says “Kenyan coffee is good because it grows under the right amount of sunlight and rainfall.”

At the roastery in Nairobi’s Lavington Mall, machines sizzle and crack, as the aroma of the brewing coffee wafts through the air. Besides the roaster, they have a barista training centre in Nairobi’s city centre.

Despite the drinking culture in Kenya, they realised there was no transferability of coffee-making skills since being a barista was unheard of as a career path.

“We decided to start a roasting facility and training centre. I’m the head of projects leading these two businesses,” says the 32-year-old.

“This will encourage more coffee consumption and create job opportunities.” Mr Yeaman fell in love with coffee in his teens after his brother who worked for the then Safari Lounge, brought him his first sachet of instant coffee.

“Then while in university [studying Digital Forensics and Cyber Security], I worked as a steward and dishwasher. One day, the manager offered us an opportunity to engage in a six months training to learn more about the business. The time at the barista section was my favourite, and the rest as they say is history,” he says.

“Abroad, coffee is a whole industry that supports thousands of people. They drink a substantial amount of the coffee grown in Kenya. To change the perception that coffee is a product for export, we started the roasting facility in 2019,” he adds.

At the roaster, consumers get to see how the coffee is processed from raw beans to the cup. Six blends of coffee from specific regions in Kenya are roasted and served.

“Our beans are from Nyeri, Meru, Kirinyaga, Kisii, Bungoma and Machakos. We chose these six regions to showcase the culture of specialty coffee. The blends are roasted separately allowing them to retain their distinct flavour characteristics. By doing this, people are exposed to the enjoyment of coffee grown from different regions,” he says.

The taste notes of these coffees are wide. The Nyeri blend is known as the heart of black gold coffee because of the “intense flavours inside its slow developing, dense beans.” Nyeri beans have a classic taste profile of fresh fruitiness from black currants, crisp citrus, and bright and balanced acidity, he reveals.

Over 500 sample coffees are roasted and cupped to assess their quality.

The reception for roasted coffee has been better than they expected. On average, Jowam Coffee sells 50 to 60 kilos of coffee per month at the coffee bar. Besides this, they also export coffee to Arabic countries.

All their coffee is sourced from nearly 1,000 small-scale farmers who have planted about 7,000 trees. This, he explains, allows them to maintain the quality of the coffee and advance sustainability.

It was while working with Arab countries that Jowam Coffee noted the demand for coffee specialists, giving rise to Jowam Training Centre.

“One of the biggest international markets for baristas is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose coffee culture is rapidly developing and therefore needs more specialists,” he says.

“This has opened up the world for Kenyan baristas. I’m passionate about this because coffee made the world my oyster,” he adds.

Coffee skills have placed Mr Yeaman before kings here and abroad. He has worked in different businesses and in other countries – Kuwait, South Africa, Somalia, Nigeria, and Ghana - as a coffee barista trainer and consultant, gathering enviable knowledge and experience. It is this skill set that he wants to pass on for posterity.

“Through this training centre, I’ve been able to pass on my coffee experiences to over 500 students opening the world to them,” says Mr Yeaman.

“Luckily, our students get jobs abroad,” says the trainer who is also the CEO of the Kenya Barista Organisation, adding that salary rates for baristas start at $600 (Sh72,000) for those without experience and roasters at $1,000 (Sh120,000).

“As a country, our focus should be on skills, not just education.”

Challenges have been inescapable. “12 years later, I still have to explain who a barista is. This is because of the failure to recognise coffee skills as professional skills,” he explains. “If we accredited these skills, we’d have more Kenyans making a living out of coffee.”

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