NewsHow Your Cup of Coffee Can Lift Up Small-Scale Farmers from Kenya to the Midwest

Posted Dec 14, 2021

If you’ve visited Green City Market anytime in the last two years, you’ve likely been acquainted with the folks with the orange tent at Kikwetu Kenya Coffee Company. 

But did you know that their coffee is direct-trade? That means not only do owners Martha and Leecox Itulya-Omollo ensure that they source coffee grown by farmers who are paid a fair wage and work in safe, fair conditions, but they maintain direct relationships with small-scale farmers in Kenya, cutting out the middlemen and giving small farmers a better deal. 

Kikwetu has become an essential part of the Green City Market ecosystem, making connections with our farmers to craft their specialty coffee drinks and put their used grounds to good use (shoutout to Green Eyed Lady and Froggy Meadow Farms!) 

They also donate a portion of their sales to support Green City Market’s nonprofit mission to lift up Midwest growers, promote the environmental stewardship of land and responsible treatment of animals, and build a vibrant market for local, sustainably-produced food in Chicago.

We spoke with Martha and Leecox to learn more about how Green City Market helped their business grow to the next level this year. Read on for their story, and join them in growing support for local, sustainable farmers and food producers. Donate today to plant the seeds of a more resilient local food system right here in the Midwest and beyond.  

  • GCM: What role has Green City Market played in your business’s growth?

Leecox: People who come to Green City want to create connections. People that come to farmers’ markets in general appear to be drawn to understand what are the stories behind these brands, what are the connections that exist here. And that's why we think it's a great fit for Kikwetu. 

So, when they come in, they don’t just say give me a cup of coffee, they want to know: tell me about the coffee? Why is it different? “Oh I’ve been to Kenya,” or “my daughter just did a study abroad there.” We’re trying to make sure that we are doing Green City the right service by adding an element that is different, that is what the customers crave in the market, but also from our side also, when you drink a cup of coffee and you're connected to the farmers that you know that created it, even though you’re in Chicago. I think enabling those things has always been a core part of what we're about. 

  • GCM: Now well over a year and a half into this pandemic, how would you describe the state of the local food system? Any lessons learned as it relates to local food, the supply chain, the ability to access customer bases? 

Martha: We had minor bumps in the road… there were some delays in our coffee coming from Kenya, and we had to kind of make sure we had stopgap measures to make sure that we didn't run out, and we figured it out. We've had cup issues for some time now where we can't get the clear [compostable] cups and so we go to the paper cups, and we say, “Hey a cold brew is either in a fancy cup with a funny message or it's in some type of coffee cup.” For me those are minor.

But all we've done is grow; every year has marked progression despite the pandemic. Part of me kind of thinks, well maybe it's because no matter what people need their coffee and they want that. And then I feel like the pandemic has also kind of forced people to slow down, which is sort of what we're about... it really forced everyone to slow down and people were stuck in their houses and they're not on this hamster wheel as much. 

Our business flourished... We are on a journey to build something different, and we keep saying that because we mean it. It's a journey of building connections and coffee — high-quality coffee — is just a vehicle to do that. 

  • GCM: Do you see Green City Market as an important part of growing your business’ future?

Leecox: Again, I can’t answer that question about going back. We see Green City Market as a big part of our future, but we also see it as more than that. 

Before we even considered doing a farmers’ market or even before the coffee idea, we used to go to Green City Market, and we loved sitting there, before the kids even, and we loved walking around — the vibe from it was something that we enjoyed even back then. When we got married in 2008, we got married at the nature museum around the corner, so that whole area has a significant importance to us. We live in Hyde Park, but even after we had kids, we used to drive all the way [to Green City Market] to look to eat crepes and other things and just be in the market. 

So, for us to be there as vendors, and for us to be able to be in a place where we actually, we have a company that has a story, and you've got a market that has a story and we're from Kenya, this is Chicago, and there is that connection. It feels to us that Green City will be a part of our future because it stretches so far back and it aligns so well with our mission. 

Martha: I know Green City’s mission is about the support of local farmers in your communities. That's one of your many core values. 

I feel that we align a lot with what Green City is about even though we're on a global platform. I always say that, yes, coffee is not locally-grown. We know that. But, in the communities where we source our coffee from, those farmers are small-scale farmers that also grow subsistence crops for their communities; they’re serving and feeding their own communities. The coffee is just one of the many products that they sell, one of the commodities that they sell.

By buying that coffee you are doing the exact same thing you're doing within your local market, but just on a global scale. You're also supporting farmers in those communities. 

And in every way shape and form we try to still source locally and support the vendors and the farmers, which is why, I'm very specific about if we're making a lavender syrup, it needs to be with ingredients from another Green City Market vendor, like Green Eyed Lady Farm.

Leecox: We keep looking for those connections. Kenya-born, Chicago-made is what we call ourselves. So the coffee is from Kenya, but it is roasted locally and it is consumed here in Chicago. And even though we have those Kenyan connections to small scale farmers we also are looking for ways to create connections in Chicago that are meaningful. 

Martha: ...and tell other people's stories alongside ours. So we did a farmers week on Instagram and we highlighted the different connections we have with other Green City vendors. Like Jerry from Froggy Meadow: he's in the booth next to us, and he asked me one day, “What do you do with your grounds?” Because you know sometimes we brew at the market so sometimes I'll have grounds. I said, “Honestly I have a ton of these. I use them sometimes in our community garden,” but he goes, “Can I have some? I use them to grow my mushrooms,” like yes, and I'll be happy to bring these over to you. 

So every week I put them into a big bag, and all and we go through 50 pounds of coffee grounds for cold brew minimum every week and I bring all that to him and, and he'll take it and use it. So that just excites me. I've told them I want to see your farm, I want to see, see where all these mushrooms are growing because now, like, super excited, like, can you imagine a story like that going back to Kenya and say, hey, hey farmers look at your coffee! We roasted the coffee in Chicago, we drank the coffee, and now your grounds are being used to grow mushrooms to feed that community.

Somebody once said to me, “Oh, your coffee, it’s like $4 per cup!” and I said yes, but, let me tell you what that value is getting you: we pay the farmers growing the coffee above fair market value, we support this local market, so some of this money is going to support Green City Market, and it’s especially high-quality coffee. And by the time I was done explaining it, they were like, okay, I feel better about this $4 cup of coffee.

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