Storyteller follows coffee beans from farm to mug

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo Writer Natalie Campbell enjoys a coffee at the coffee niche of her kitchen in her Hay River home.

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo
Writer Natalie Campbell enjoys a coffee at the coffee niche of her kitchen in her Hay River home.

While she admittedly loves coffee, Natalie Campbell is planning to write a book about the economic hardships faced by small-scale coffee farmers in the faraway country of Kenya.

The book – a non-fiction travelogue – would tell the story of discovery by Campbell and trace coffee beans from the small farms of Nyeri County in the African country to her kitchen in Hay River.

“The reason I want to do this is I want to enlighten consumers about the plight of Kenyan coffee farmers,” she explained. “Basically, they’re growing some of the best coffee in the world and are living in extreme poverty.”

Campbell said about 75 per cent of the coffee from Kenya – which actually only produces less than one per cent of the world’s supply – is grown by farmers with a couple of acres of land or less.

“So that means 800,000 smallholder farmers, almost all of them living in really desperate conditions,” she said.

While it might seem like an unusual topic for a writer from Canada’s North, Campbell does have a background in writing about coffee marketing. For six years, she has freelanced with Global Coffee Report, a trade journal based in Australia.

However, that was not what led her to the plight of coffee farmers in Kenya.

“It was just like kind of a random epiphany I had where I dropped coffee beans on the ground and it was after I had finished an interview with one of the execs at Nespresso about growing coffee in South Sudan,” she recalled.

At that moment, it dawned on her that being concerned about the spilled beans was such a First World problem.

“And I was like, ‘I wonder how much effort went into producing the beans that I just spilt on the ground?’” she said.
Campbell then realized she didn’t even know how the beans were produced and how they made it all the way to her – even after writing about coffee for years – and that it was a safe bet that most consumers didn’t, either.

“So I made it my mission to get informed and to learn more about the process and who is growing it, where it’s coming from in the world,” she said.

The epiphany led to research during which she came across several articles by a journalist in Kenya detailing coffee growers struggles.

“I just sunk my teeth into it and contacted him over Facebook,” Campbell said, adding he put her in touch with contacts, including an actual farmer.

She interviewed the female farmer – who earns about $2 a day – about a year and a half ago.

Most of the high-quality Arabica coffee beans from Kenya go to Europe, but some make it to North America, and could be used in blended coffees that are sold everywhere.
Campbell has two main goals in her planned book.

“One is to just make people rethink how they value their cup of coffee, and just know where the coffee is coming from, not just from Kenya, and place more value into what they’re taking for granted,” she said.

The other goal is to open people’s eyes to the particular dilemma in Kenya and hopefully force some change there.

She said coffee farmers around the world are getting the short end of the stick, and that situation can’t continue as business as usual.

“We can’t expect coffee to be available when those who produce it don’t have the incentive to do so,” she said. “We have to revalue how we look at our cup of coffee.”

The 34-year-old Campbell has developed a book proposal and is trying to sell the idea to an agent or a publishing house.

“It’s taken me a year and a half to develop it, because it’s a lot of research,” she noted.

Campbell said constructing the book proposal was the most difficult thing she has ever undertaken.

“It is a huge challenge, but I love challenges, and I’m a very determined person,” she said. “I know this is going to happen because I’m going to make it happen.”

The research will continue by actually travelling to Kenya, possibly in November, to visit the farms and then start writing the book, which has the working title Roasting Under the Midnight Sun.

“I’ve decided I’m going to Kenya either way and this book is going to get written either way,” Campbell said. “I really don’t want to go the self-publishing route because I really want a publishing house to back my book.”

The former sports editor with News/North said her lifelong goal has been to become an author.

“This is what I love,” she said. “I love writing.”

And her proposed book will combine that love of writing with another one of her passions.

“I love coffee. I drink a full pot before 10 a.m. every day,” she said, noting that is about 12 cups, although she explained that, as a stay-at-home mother of two, she starts her day at 5 a.m.

For others who also share her love of coffee, Campbell will host a coffee-tasting event on Feb. 25, beginning at 7 p.m. at NWT Centennial Library.

Participants in the event will be able to compare the flavours of specially-ordered coffee from around the world.

–Paul Bickford