Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Department of Coffee, Western Cape


The view of Khaylistsha from the train station. The Department of Coffee is clearly visible (the big red building)

Travelling around South Africa can be rather frustrating as it seems like everyone is scared of being mugged, raped, hijacked, kidnapped or…. even murdered! Yes it’s a problem here, but it does feel like the whole security thing is a little too hyped up. Most of the people who advice against certain modes of transport or visits to “dodgier” parts of town tend to be the ones that rely on hear-say rather then actual experience to make their na├»ve judgments. I was told NEVER to get in the local minibus/taxis, but when asked if they’d even set foot in one, the reply was “No way!”. This segregation is what prevents and restricts the breakdown of social stigma. It’s not really spoken about, but there is still a great deal of racism in South Africa. I have seen it and experienced it. Some may sadly believe it’s part of daily life. Ultimately it is inhibiting the country from moving forward.

  
After the forced removal of 60,000 black and coloured residents from the inner city area of Cape Town in the 1970s, the evicted residents were forced to find elsewhere to settle. The black community moved to the numerous townships that surrounded the city. Since then, little has changed and the Western Cape still remains racially segregated twenty years after apartheid ended. Inner city Cape Town remains a predominantly “white area”, whilst the surrounding townships are nearly all “back areas”.  

Khayelitsha is one of these areas and is the largest and fastest growing township in the country. It has had a great deal of bad press recently as it remains the only township with a growing rate of violent crimes as well as being the township where Annie Dewani was murdered. The estimated population is 400,000 with less then 5% being over 50 year of age and around 40% being under the age of 19. The population is young and majority of the new residents are rural to urban migrants. Unsurprisingly, unemployment is considerably high bringing with it problems with drugs and alcohol abuse.

Tours around Khayelitsha and other townships are starting to pop up and are actually proving to be rather popular with “adventurous” tourists. Volunteers have also started to flock in to help out in township orphanages and schools. These initiatives only target the “foreign tourist” market though and does little to breakdown barriers with Cape Town residents.

Frustrated by the divide and the problems faced in their township, three young lads from Khayelitsha got together with the Ministry of Service Delivery to come up with a solution using the skills and resources they had available to them. Vuyile Msaku, Wongama Baleni, and Vusumzi Mamile set up the Department of Coffee as a way of regenerating their area. The concept is simply to have a hub where people from all backgrounds can meet over a coffee. Their slick look, strong brand identity and even stronger coffee has proven to be a success with both locals and Cape Townies alike. Based opposite Khaylitsha’s only train station and on the bottom floor of the VPUU (Violence Preventions Through Urban Upgrading) building, the boys are in an easily accessible location where they can target local businesses, anyone coming off the train, and most importantly youth seeking advice.


The prices at Department of Coffee are extremely reasonable (a cup of coffee in town = R22)


The guys are all professionally trained baristas who use only the finest arabica beans from Ethiopia which are roasted locally and ground freshly using only the best equipment. The menu is extensive, offering a variety of coffee, teas, hot chocolate and muffins. Currently they are trying out a range of “red” beverages, made from loose Rooibos leaves that are used in the same way as you would ground coffee. The outcome is surprisingly sweet and refreshing, proving popular with visitors.

Like most good coffee shops, the Department of Coffee deliver to local businesses, the local court house, local hospital, and even make special Muffin Runs to children’s homes where they hand out muffins bought with money donated by their customers. The best bit is, their products are modestly priced, making it affordable for the average Khaylitshan resident. As history has shown, the most successful enterprises are the ones that know their market inside out, including knowing how to price their products appropriately.


It seems like since they started a year ago Vuyile, Wongama, and Vusumzi have done some great things, and it doesn't seem like they want to stop. They have started to hold monthly CoffeeMobs which aims at bringing people from Cape Town to Khaylitsha via a free train service. The event includes local music artists, arts and crafts and of course great coffee. But more importantly it is a chance for the people of Khaylitsha and Cape Town to mingle over a shared appreciation for all things good. Last month a group of Cape Town cyclists decided to organise a bikeathon from the city to the coffee hub that helped raise money for regeneration projects in the township. Talking to Vuyile, I was told they were hoping to expand by opening another Department of Coffee where they would have a sit down service where they could also serve hot food.


The Department of Coffee, a growing franchise 


There’s no doubt that these guys are super ambitious and it’s rubbing off on the youth in Khaylitsha who have seen what can be accomplished with a bit of determination and the right guidance. The boys not only serve as amasszing baristas, they also offer advice and support for the youth of the township. We are reminded that when it comes to making a difference in the community, it is ultimately left up to the people of that community to make that change.

Cape Town has been named the Design Capital of the world 2013/14 and they are specifically looking for designs that solve social, cultural and environmental issues. I can’t think of a better nomination then the Department of Coffee. Their well thought out concept has been marketed incredibly well. Through the use of facebook, local media and most importantly word of mouth, the organisation has become something worth finding out about. This has attracted attention from coffee loving Cape Townies and from the local youth who so desperately need role models to look up to. The idea has been successful for it’s simplicity and effectiveness to focus on their main issue: “breaking down the wall between Cape Town and Khayelitsha.” Nothing can stop these guys and from the looks of it, the Department of Coffee is bound for great things. 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Greenhouse Project, Johannesburg


The Greenhouse Project in Joubert Park, Central Johannesburg

If South Africa were a teenager it’d be going through a massive growth spurt. The country has a fast growing population and a booming economy, and unlike its African brothers and sisters, the country is strong, defiant and has a point to make. It has embraced America’s big and fast nature: large agricultural farms; massive industrial factories; huge supermarkets and mega sized malls. South Africa has it all… and like a hungry growing teen it will gobble up anything with little regard to future health problems.  

Despite this, it seems South Africa still bears scares from apartheid, and social recover has been slow and at often times futile. Poverty is still on the increase and even though Afrikaans now only make up 7% of the population, they still hold majority of the country’s wealth. Large wealth disparities are nothing new on the continent and unfortunately this is unlikely to change for a while. Townships are growing faster then ever before and urban spaces are becoming over crowded. Nelson Mandela’s equal country is far from being equal and although there has been a slight shift in the disparity (some whites moving down the social class ladder and blacks and coloured moving up) the gap is only growing. This is leading to basic social issues in the built environment such as waste management, food insecurity, access to clean water, recourse management, and inefficient use of energy.  

The South African government faces many challenges, but fails to acknowledge even the most basic. Reports have shown that unlike its war-torn neighbour Zimbabwe, the country is failing to meet Food Security targets for the most needy. What’s gone wrong? Well for one, the country is too focused on superficial growth: a great deal of investment has gone into large scale commercial farming (foreign market) which still dominates the country’s agricultural sector. Secondly the government is focusing on meeting shot term goals rather then long-term goals: this has resulted in a spike in food prices, since the 2010 World Cup, that most people cannot afford. Lastly, there has been little or no change in policies with regards to sustainable food systems. Food is a basic need, and when prices rise and salaries don't, people inevitably struggle and ultimately end up living in impoverish circumstances.

So when a government fails to meet the needs of the people it is often left up to a NGO to do what it can to solve the problem. Following a civil society campaign surrounding the issues of environmental sustainability in 1993, the Earthlife Africa Johannesburg activist group began to conceptualise an organisation that would serve as an inspirational space and support base where organisations can network whilst learning from live demonstrations and examples on how to build, cultivate and cycle resources in urban environments. This was eventually called The Greenhouse Project, which is now located on the North side of Joubert Park, Central Johannesburg. It’s in a not so desirable location, but that's beside the point. The project space is inspirational and is proof that with the appropriate techniques and with a bit of guidance any space can become a green haven.   

Example of veggies that can grown in an urban environment.
These are sold to the local community and the profits are
 reinvested into the organisation

The project follows the simple ethos that demonstrations, examples and access to information can lead to a more successful learning experience. Part of this is their agricultural area where a variety of growing systems are on show. The area also serves as a space to experiment, try out new techniques, but also to demonstrate what can be done with a bit of creative thinking. Here indigenous techniques are applied to the urban environment where the three ‘R’s (reusing, recycling and reducing) are carried out wherever possible.

Using old tyres as continuers in making organic nutrient rich fertiliser 

Projects like these allow for more area specific demonstrations to take place. For example, the northern part of South Africa is a semi arid terrain, which means it’s water scares for most of the year. The Greenhouse Project focuses on technologies, which allow for better water conservation in agriculture and daily life. This pass on of invaluable knowledge is crucial in helping meet needs on a long-term basis.


A garden being worked on by a group of children who come after school

Drainage system that collects rain water which then flows to
the gardens to water the plants

Rain water collecting system which is filtered and used for daily use

Reeds used to filer rain water


As well as this, the project space aims to make people rethink their consumerist behaviour by demonstrating what is possible by reusing, recycling and reducing. The two offices are made from 100% natural or reclaimed material and use natural lighting, insulation, renewable energy, aeration and water systems:

Reclaimed paving stones

Earth building made form 100% natural or reclaimed materials 

Kitchen space: White hydro bricks, reclaimed paving stones, and reclaimed wood

Office space with duel level natural lighting

Flooring: Reclaimed paving stones, natural clay, and wood is used

Second Kitchen Space: Natural paint, scrap metal lights,
 reclaimed wood and tiles 

Boardroom: natural lighting created by the glass ceiling which during
the summer time is covered by a cranadina plant and during the winter time
it sheds it's leaves allowing in more light
Artist workshop

E-waste to be used by artists

Bycycles used to circulate the city in search of scrap materials


The organisation is visited by a wide variety of people form different communities: school kids from the city, groups of women from townships, agricultural groups from suburban areas, students and entrepreneurs. It targets the people who want to know, but thus far it hasn't been able to target the people who can make the biggest difference: the government. The organisation is desperate to target the government and their “brick housing” scheme for the townships. This scheme is seeing extremely flammable shacks in crowded townships being knocked down and replaced by brick structures courtesy of the South African government. The Greenhouse Project is pushing for the government to abandon conventional building techniques in replacement for more sustainable ones that would ultimately cost less. For example, they would like to see jobless immigrants trained in building and designing rainwater collecting systems, which would solve the problem of unemployment and the availability of clean water in townships. Simple solutions like these are what the Greenhouse Project are good at, but it seems like the government are more concerned with meeting superficial targets rather then sustainable ones.

Large billboard from Anglo American showing just how important
housing in South Africa is

The project provides help and advice to individuals and organisations on all aspects of sustainability: shelter, climate, ethics, energy, water, soil and food. More places like the Greenhouse Project are needed as spaces to experiment, learn and inspire the future generations about a sustainable future. African cities are growing rapidly and as they do so does the populations’ need for convenience over substance. A green space like this one not only helps us get back in touch with nature, it also inspires one to think more environmentally. It’s a no brainer that sustainable development is the way forward, but it’s how this is done that makes the difference. NGOs can only do so much for the people. It requires a change in policy from parliamentary level to make a lasting change for years to come. But as things go, governments only ever want to meet short-term goals to show the people that they are “meeting their needs”.


It takes a movement, and it seems South Africa is getting there, but very slowly. There is lack of education on environmental issues for the majority and because of this it’s only a small percentage that are making a difference. For example, “Urban farms”, “organic” and “community markets” in Johannesburg and Cape Town are terms mainly used by the affluent suburbanites and this comes with a price tag. It does little to solve the problem at grass root level. Urban farms should be feeding the immediate community, not people who have travelled an hour in a car to get there. Environmental education needs to focus on the majority to make a difference, and this is what the Greenhouse Project aims to do. Until governments can begin to make a lasting positive impact, it is left up to NGOs to fill the position of public educators and to turn around a situation that would otherwise be ignored.


It seems like there is so much happening in African cities that it’s easy to be caught up in the excitement of it all, but if there is something that can be learned from the economic crisis in the West, it’s that we cannot forget our sense of community as a citizen of the world. We need to have more open sources, access to education, talks, demonstrations and all easily accessible and available. It takes this knowledge to inspire activist to lobby for change. This ultimately plays a role in a sustainable change that can be reaped for years to come. If we can have more spaces like the Greenhouse Project to inspire people, we can be sure that South Africa will be an example to its African brothers and sisters: that, in spite of the country’s turbulent history, it continues to listen to the needs of its people and will endeavour to meet them for generations to come. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The West Kenyan Sugar Experience


Sugar is a big commodity in Kenya. The country consumes so much, that although though they produce vast amounts, they still import sugar into the country to meet demands. It’s an on going joke that Coca Cola put more sugar in their Kenyan bottles then they do for any other market. I came to believe this when I visited the West Kenyan Sugar Factory in Kakamega, Kenya.

Being the second biggest the Western Province, The West Kenyan Sugar Factory, processes sugar for the surrounding area of Kakamenga, which only has a population of about 500,000. For this, they have to produce 2,500 tons of sugar a day, employ 900 members of staff and support 53,000 farmers.

The huge factory spreads out over 15 acres of land and lies amongst some of the Western Provinces most stunning scenery. This doesn't spoil the natural beauty of the area, but instead offers a stark difference, showing off the area’s industrial might. The smell of molasses in the air and the glisten of soft brown sugar everywhere can dazzle the senses. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the colossal stainless steel structures that make up the factory. The enormous factory not only churns out masses of sugar, it literally runs on the sweet stuff too!

All this raw cane can will be processed in 1hr
Hot seam escaping from cooling down machinery. Bagasse in the background,
the by product of cane used as fertiliser and to power the machinery. 



The pipes that carry raw cane juice to be processed into sugar

The factory produces 2,500 tons of sugar a day. These bags each weigh 50kg and are ready to be dispatched and feed Kakamega's sugar addiction. 

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Kericho Tea

Unilever Tea Estate, with the Mau forest in the background  


Tea (or ‘chai’ in Swahili) plays a big role in Kenyan culture whilst also being the country’s largest export. Luckily enough Kenya grows more then it consumes and so has plenty to export around the world. Majority of Kenyan tea comes from Kericho, a small, but extremely lush county west of the rift valley. The high altitude, cool climate and fertile soil helps produce some of the world’s most desirable black tea: rich in flavor and dark in colour.



Most of the tea plantations in Kericho are owned by large companies; Unilever, Brook Bonds, and James Finlay. Since the beginning of large-scale tea production in the 1930s, these companies have dominated the Kenyan Tea market, buying out acres of land for the production of tea. These vast areas, called “tea estates”, can be seen east of Kericho town, on the way to Nairobi. As well as processing factories and small offices, tea estates also have housing facilities for their workers, majority of whom have traveled from around the country to be part of this lucrative industry.

As with most tea estates around the world, the carpet of green tea gardens as far as the eye can see is a sight to behold. Dotted with trees, and maybe the odd factory or two, one begins to comprehend the drastic impact humans have had on our natural environment. The exploitation of the land for harvesting cash crops is only realised when one visits the Mau forest which once extended from Western Kenya through to Uganda, Rawanda and all the way to the Congo. This once dense forest was cut down by the British to make way for the rolling tea plantations. The same vast tea estates are also largely responsible for the growth in Kenya’s economy, putting it on the international trade map.  

If you were to go east of Kericho town, you will see an entirely different tea landscape. Here, smaller patches of tea gardens pop up amongst forests and farmland. This is where smallholding tea farmers live, and have lived for generations. The people here are indigenous Kipsigis people who started to grow Tea when the British first introduced it around a century ago. Majority of the farmers make most of their living from tea production, and tend to have a number of buyers they supply to. This keeps prices competitive as well as ensuring high quality tea.

Kareena's Family Tea Plantation, mid morning

I visited Kericho with a good friend of mine in early July 2013. We stayed with a friend of ours called, Kereena, whose family owned a smallholding tea farm. Her grandfather, who gave each son a portion to grow tea on, had divided the land up. This subsequently will happen to Kereena and her brothers and sisters. It does make one question though, how much can a land be divided before it loses its value?  

Walking around the family plantation with Mama Kareena and Kareena's cousins 

We walked around the family plantation, which seemed well organised and easy enough to navigate. Amongst the tea gardens were fruit trees and designated areas for growing maize. We were told that the tea bushes never stop producing tealeaves, as long as they are maintained well, which means regular pruning. The bushes should never exceed 4 meters. Kareena’s granddad first planted the Tea bushes in the sixties. The same tea bushes still exist and still produce high quality tealeaves.

Tea pickers

Due to the enormity of their tea gardens, Kareena’s parents outsourced a few local women to pick leaves on their behalf. I was told that an average picker could pluck up to 50kg of leaves a day. As the tea pickers are paid by weight, they are expected to pick about 6-10kg an hour to earn a decent wage. Unlike on the tea estates, where scissors are used, these women picked the tea by hand, which ensures only the best leaves are picked and no that no leaves are damaged in the process.

Plucking tea

Picking tea by hand is a skill to master. It needs a good eye and a couple of speedy hands. Only the top two leaves on the plant should be picked, leaving some stem. This is called a “fine plucking”. 


"fine plucking"

The leaves are collected and then taken to buying stations where the bags of leaves are randomly sampled, weighed and the farmer is given some money in exchange for the tea they have picked. Prices can range from 15ksh – 60ksh (12p – 48p) per kilo depending on the buying company.

We went to visit one of the more ethical buying and processing companies in the area that Kareena’s family supply to:

Tegat Tea Factory, Kericho

The Tegat Tea Factory was initially built in 1971 by the James Finley co. It was later bought three years later, in 1974, by the Kenyan Tea Development Agency, the leading management agency for small scale tea farmers in Kenya. This means that the factory and the running of operations is owned and controlled by the farmers, who select the board members and have the largest stake in the company.

The tea processed by the factory comes from approximately 9000 different farmers all within a 12km radius of the factory. Consistency is maintained by the KTDA who regularly visit farmers and their farms to ensure high standards are kept. They also supply the farmers with any farming inputs they may need, like fertilisers and seeds. This is all supported by the Kenyan Tea Research Foundation who are consistently developing better and more efficient ways of growing tea.

The Tegat Tea Factory processes between 20,000 – 100,000 kg of leaves a day. Most of the tea is exported to the UK, Pakistan, Egypt and even Afganistan. Companies that buy the tea, include Tetleys, Lipton, and Taylors of Harrogate. The tea is Rain Forest Alliance Certified, which makes it highly desirable by tea companies that want to appeal to the new “ethical market”. Unsurprisingly enough, most of the smallholding farms had to go through little or no changes to achieve this status.

The processing of the tea takes around 3hr from start to finish:

Leaves are dried over fans for 2hrs

The leaves are then chopped and rotated, then fermented by being oxidised 


The leaves still have 65% moisture content, this is removed by steam drying five times 



The tea comes out ungraded and is perfectly suitable for human consumption at this point. Although for the international market, the tea has to be graded, not according to taste (as it all tastes the same) but according to size: 

Grade1: larger leaf, creates a light liquor; Grade2: Medium Leaf, creates a semi thick liquor; and Grade3: small leaves, creates a thick liquor.

The tea is graded using a large sieve which separates the tea into it’s three different grades.

Now, this only matters because different countries have different preferences and trends for their tea. For example, in the UK teabags are the preferred method, and because the tea only need a short time in water, grade 3 leaves are used. In Pakistan, where lose tea is brewed in a pot, grade 1 leaves are used. 

Large sieve which grades the tea

Grading tea is a curtail stage as prices for each grade change according to market demand. This inevitably affects the price of the other grades. This can be witnessed first hand at the largest Tea Trading House in the world which in on the East Coast of Kenya in the port city of Mombasa. Here is where tea is tasted, and bought before entering the world market. 

Graded Tea: (left to right) grade 1, grade 2 and grade 3
Once the tea is graded and packed, it is ready for transporting around Kenya and the world. Kenya only consumes 2% of the tea it produces. The other 98% is exported. For every 5kg of raw leaves you get 1kg of the final product. Tegat alone processed 15,000,000kg of raw tea leaves in 2012, and this is from one of the smaller tea factories in Kericho!

As one of the world’s largest consumers of tea, the UK has a vested interest in tea production globally. As demands grow, we need to think about how they can best be met. Are we willing to sacrifice quality? Will we sacrifice Mother Nature? Or are we even willing to sacrifice our much loved commodity? I was really inspired by how Tegat and the KTDA were managing tea production to meet international markets. Their approach which put small scale farmers in control, not only ensures less land degradation but also allows empowers farmers to make the right choices when it comes to the management of their tea production.  

Sunset over smallholding tea plantations, Kericho
As our time in Kericho came to an end we watched the sun set over the tea planations whilst tea pickers walked home, I began to realise how important the tea industry is to Kenya. As the country’s largest export for the last forty years, tea has help shaped Kenya into one of the most powerful countries on the continent. As this. continues, I hope more and more that we will see more factories like Tegat, which will give Kareena’s family the opportunity to buy more smallholdings for future generations. The tea we love so much is also a means to a living for many people around the world. Choosing and supporting the right brand is not only good for the farmers, but also for the environment and most importantly for the future of the industry. Maybe that next time I chose which tea I want in my cup, I will think about what kind of future Kareena and her family would like for the future of tea production in Kenya.