Travelling the globe for the love of coffee

Saturday December 7 2019

Smayah Uwajeneza is a Rwandan barista

Smayah Uwajeneza is a Rwandan barista, trainer, roaster and head of quality control at Question Coffee. PHOTO | ANDREW I KAZIBWE | NMG 

JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
By JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
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It is a sunny Saturday afternoon and crowds of people are streaming into the Kigali Cultural Village for the second edition of Speak Africa Forum.

Soon, a young woman clad in a snakeskin leather dress, a turban and a navy blue button up coat steps on to the stage.

Smayah Uwajeneza is calm, collected and eloquent, just like past speakers of the event, organised by Voice Masters Africa.

Voice Masters Africa is made up of young people who describe themselves as innovative, creative and passionate. They teach young people public speaking skills and how to be self-reliant.

Uwajeneza, 22, is a product of this training. She speaks with passion about a topic one would least expect to hear from a woman her age. Her topic is about her love for coffee, which she says, has taken her around the globe.

Uwajeneza wears several hats. She is a roaster and head of quality control at Question Coffee, a state-of-the-art specialty coffee café in Kigali. The recipient of the Leadership Equity and Diversity scholarship is also a barista and trainer.

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The programme seeks to boost the diversity of leadership in the global coffee community by offering scholarships to people from under-represented or marginalised communities to help them build their profession.

As part of her job at Question Coffee, coffee
As part of her job at Question Coffee, coffee lover and barista Smayah Uwajeneza (left) worked with farmers and wrote their stories. PHOTO | ANDREW I KAZIBWE | NMG

It would seem like Uwajeneza was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but nothing could be further from the truth. She was born on September 28 1997, three years after the Genocide against the Tutsi, at a time Rwanda was rebuilding itself.

She grew up in a family of 15—10 girls and five boys. Uwajeneza was only four-years-old when she lost her father. Her mother then had to raise all 15 siblings singlehandedly.

The family lived in a modest home with limited resources in post-genocide Rwanda, which was facing a number of challenges including socio-economic and environmental impacts.

As a young girl, Uwajeneza watched her mother struggle to educate them all. When the time came for her to join university, her mother could not afford the fees. A number of families did not care much about schooling then, and many girls were married off as teenagers.

Uwajeneza knew her options were limited. She could either choose to get married at 16, or find a way to pay for her university education.

On November 27, 2015, a day after she had written her final exam in high school, Uwajeneza began to look for a job.

She would eventually talk her elder sister into employing her at her fashion boutique—a modest shop in the heart of Kigali. But given the meagre salary Uwajeneza received, she could barely save any money for her university tuition.

Next to the shop was a café called Neo, where Uwajeneza often bought her lunch. At the café, was a woman who worked as a barista—one of the first female baristas in the country—and an expert in latte art.

“I became friends with her and asked her to teach me how to draw in a cup...that is, latte art. I loved art and made portraits that I sold at my sister’s shop,” said Uwajeneza.

“Initially, the woman was hesitant because her boss counted how many cups she made and in her words, the cafe wasn’t ‘the right place.’ But there was a right place and the barista would be getting hired there soon, where she would train people on how to make specialty coffee.”

Several months later, the woman got the job at Question Coffee.

Among the first people she recruited for training was Uwajeneza, who had shown keen interest in learning the craft.

It was then that Uwajeneza had to make “the first hard decision” in her life—whether to quit the job at the boutique or take up the training for no pay.

Initially, she tried juggling between the two—training in the morning and working at the shop in the afternoon—but the shop ended up losing business. That marked the start of her coffee journey.

Uwajeneza joined Question Coffee as a trainee not expecting a job. She was more interested in learning latte art, seeing it as a skill that she could always use as opposed to getting a job.

After the training at the age of 17, Uwajeneza was employed with a probation period of three months, during which time she needed to learn “everything” about the trade. At Question Coffee, she also worked with coffee farmers.

Initially, she found espresso to be bitter yet she had to drink it to ensure it was just right.

“Every morning my bosses asked for an espresso, and I had to drink at least four cups to get it right and serve the fifth. That’s kind of how I started loving coffee. Coffee is really bitter. When I started drinking it, I would take a big cup of latte with some five spoons of sugar. Latte is the only coffee that has a lot of milk in it. Now I can’t even drink a latte. I can’t even finish a small cup of cappuccino. I only drink espresso or black coffee,” she said.

Within the first month, Uwajeneza understood how to taste and brew coffee. By the second month, she could create her own signature drinks.

Her boss was impressed at how fast she picked it all up. She spent hours on YouTube and reading books at the cafe to hone her skills.

In her free time, Uwajeneza would go to Question Coffee to read about coffee. She found out that coffee was dynamic and that it was a world on its own. And that that little seed had a huge political, economic and social impact.

A few months later, her boss found out that she loved writing. She had a blog then. She was asked to visit coffee farmers and write their stories, which would help buyers understand the story behind the people who supply the coffee.

This would be the turning point for her life as meeting these farmers enabled her to “find meaning in life.”

Uwajeneza visited a number of co-operatives in Western Province and collected stories from farmers in Kinyarwanda, which she translated into English. But she did not understand how significant coffee was until she met the women coffee farmers.

As a young woman from Kigali, she had never experienced life in a rural area. So speaking to the farmers was eye-opening. She learnt about how much the farmers earn from their coffee and saw the hope and smiles on their faces.

However, most of the stories she collected were heart-breaking and she would end up tearing up just listening to them.

One farmer narrated about how she received training on growing coffee which helped her improve her yields, but prior to that, she had lost her baby after a home birth because she could not afford to go to hospital.

Through these stories, Uwajeneza felt that these people needed a voice; they needed someone who had the same passion and love for coffee as they did. She couldn’t be their voice without understanding coffee in its entirety.

Uwajeneza embraced their work by “making delicious cups of coffee for customers” through roasting their favourite beans and by telling their stories to whoever she met “in the hope that they would relate to the farmers” through her.

“That meant sacrifice and I had to turn away from friends, family and even myself to focus on coffee,” she said.

It took her three-and-a-half years, participating in coffee competitions across the globe to master her craft.

What began as a way for her to earn money for her college tuition turned into a love and passion for coffee. She started as a trainee to a barista, then became a senior barista and is currently a roaster and quality controller.

A man takes coffee at one of Bourbon Coffee
A man takes coffee at one of Bourbon Coffee shops in Kigali. Rwanda produces some of the world’s best coffees. PHOTO | ANDREW I KAZIBWE | NMG

In 2017, months after joining Question Coffee, Uwajeneza signed up for Let’s Talk Coffee, a national annual barista competition, organised by Sustainable Harvest, a local NGO that trains smallholder farmers in coffee agronomy and connects them to coffee markets.

Despite her limited experience, she bagged the first runner’s up prize beating competitors with more than five years of experience, and became the only girl in the top five.

A coffee tasting session in Kigali. Uwajeneza
A coffee tasting session in Kigali. Uwajeneza was the 2018 East African Aeropress Champion, after making the best cup of coffee. PHOTO | ANDREW I KAZIBWE | NMG

A year later, Uwajeneza became the 2018 East African Aeropress Champion—where participants compete to make the best cup of coffee using their favourite AeroPress recipe. She then competed at the World Aeropress Championship in Sydney Australia.

These opportunities broadened her horizons as a coffee professional and so did the Lead scholarship.

The programme is made possible through the Specialty Coffee Association. When she applied for the scholarship, SCA had received more than 60 applications from individuals all over the world, from a wide range of professions in the coffee sector, including baristas, café managers, graduate and PhD students.

She was among the five recipients of the two-year programme, which includes participation in events and educational activities, as well as career development and expansion of professional networks.

“Coffee has given me a professional focus: I feel proud, strengthened, connected, motivated, valued, and inspired by it,” Uwajeneza told The EastAfrican.

“Now I use it as a platform to inspire those around me to believe, work and achieve; to give hope to the hopeless, and to help our leaders to forge the future for the Rwandan society. And of course, to contribute to the development and sustainability of our coffee industry that played a big part in helping my nation to rebuild itself, so that I could also build a life I wanted for myself.”