A Tour of Tembo

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

Our host in Mbeya was James Dargan, an expat from South Carolina. He was a tall, athletic American with a low, welcoming drawl and an easy, measured smile. On our only evening at his house, we heard a little of his story.

He works for Tembo Coffee Company in Tanzania, a producer of coffee partnered with the Westrock Group in Arkansas. It is a company that relies solely on exports – most of its produce is shipped to either the United States or the United Kingdom, while none of their coffee is sold or distributed locally (except to the farmers who grow the beans). James himself started working for Tembo in Rwanda before being moved to the head office in Mbeya.

“I originally went to Rwanda to visit my brother,” he admitted, having told us of his background studies in hospitality. “It was a 2-week holiday. Then I ended up staying there and working in restaurants and businesses before getting involved in coffee. I didn’t know much about it before – I mean, I drank it, but that’s about it.”

“Everyone is trying really hard in Rwanda,” James said, thoughtfully. “1994 [the genocide] was a real low point. Many of the educated people were either killed or they fled. But they don’t want to get anywhere near that again – so it’s a hard working place. Sometimes you need that shot up the arm…” he added, ominously.

He was then asked to head up the operation down in Mbeya, which meant a change of country, of culture and of environment. “It didn’t take too much convincing to move down here. It was nice to have a change of scenery. I live in an area of mostly expats, there aren’t many, but it’s quiet.”

His views on the working culture of Tanzania, however, differ quite significantly to that of Rwanda: “Tanzania has just been plodding along for 40 years. It’s very lacksidasical. With the coastline and natural resources it has, it should be booming. But people are just content to feed themselves, and Mbeya is a big place so people have the land to do that. They don’t need money. But then their child gets sick, and they can’t get healthcare, or their child wants to get educated, and they can’t afford school.”

“The taxes here in Tanzania are really bad, almost half of what you earn. But we [Tembo Coffee Company] keep quiet, pay our taxes, and we do well. We’re the only producer in the area that has a lab [to test the beans that come through], and all the suppliers bring their produce to us first. So anything that tests badly in the lab we just send along to our competitors and they think the suppliers have given them first pick; they can’t test it so they send it out and their customers get bad coffee [laughs] - maybe they’ve figured it out by now.”

It is, in all, an extensive project – the next morning, James handed us over to Tanner, a fellow expat from East Tennessee in America, to take us on a tour of the compound. Tanner took us straight to the main factory room, abuzz with the sound of chattering women – here, local ‘Mama’s,’ as they call them, sort out the good beans from the bad beans. There were around 20 tables around which the Mama’s worked, with about 8 to a table and more tables in an adjacent room.

“We hire local workers because its cheaper, their wages are lower,” James had explained to us earlier. “It’s also good for the community and them. I think they’re only a few expats working for the company here. We get supplies from about 10000 farms – it’s difficult getting paperwork and all of that together and keeping it organised but it’s getting better. We make sure to give the farmers some of their own coffee, so they can taste it. They also like to know where their produce is going.”

In between the tables, burly young men loaded sacks of coffee beans onto their backs to a storage unit in the next room. Each sack weighed around 60 kilograms, but the men staggered to and fro consistently, only taking a brief break between each load. There was very much a divide in the factory: the women did the sorting, the men did the lifting. Elsewhere, large metal machines helped sort out bean sizes into their specific groupings, organised by internally recognised coffee bean sizes such as AA or AB – the overseas buyers would request a specific number of bags containing beans of a specific size.

From the factory we went to the lab, where Flora, a local woman who’d been trained specifically as the lab expert, roasted some beans and explained the process by which coffee is tasted and tested, called ‘cupping.’ It reminded me of wine tasting in many ways: you look for the acidity, body, aroma, depth, and clarity, amongst other signifiers, where the smell can be equally as important as the taste.

It was a fascinating look into the fundamentals of Tembo Coffee Company, the rise of which is testament to the growing exploration of coffee in Eastern Africa. As well as Rwanda and Tanzania, other countries such as Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia and even Burundi and the Congo have plentiful coffee farms that, if correctly utilised, can be a great source of employment, income, livelihood and pride.