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The Quest for Kibo Chagga

During the Second World War, The Ministry of Food became the importers of all coffee into the United Kingdom. After the war was over, this continued, administered through the big coffee wholesalers of the time.

My father took delivery of the consignment as he usually did, suspecting no surprises. He sorted the delivery and noticed that some of the bags were marked "K.N.C.U. Produce of Tanganyika". This was interesting. Immediately, he set about roasting and tasting a batch. In his diary he says “The flavour of this Tanganyika coffee was outstanding”. Reminding him of coffee from Colombia, it had something of a flavour profile he had missed since before the war.

During this period, coffees from Central and South America were not available to us. As coffee was traded in dollars, H.M. Treasury would not sanction the purchase. Particularly not when we could buy coffee from The Sterling Area. The only exception to this was Brazilian coffee. We always had some coffee from Brazil.

I can remember my father talking longingly about the coffees he couldn’t get, especially Colombia coffee. This Tanzanian coffee from the other side of the world reminded him of the flavour he missed.

We received a few more consignments before the supply stopped. The suppliers told him no more was available and they were not very helpful with information about the origin. My father was keen for more information and sowent to The East African Dependencies Information office in Trafalgar Buildings where he was well received. They told him K.N.C.U stood for The Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union in Tanganyika (Tanzania). It was grown by The Wa Chagga people on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The K.N.C.U was regarded as one of the most successful and go ahead co-operatives in the whole of Africa. The commissioners were very interested that he thought so highly of the coffee and said that they would forward the information back to the K.N.C.U.

Returning from the bank one afternoon, my sister noticed two well dressed men talking about the Chagga coffee displayed in our shop window.  She heard one say “Oh well, let’s go in”. Audrey went into the shop, passing my father at the counter and quietly saying "I think we're about to get a visit”.

The men came in and asked about the Chagga coffee. My father advised that he had some, however it was finishing and he would be out of stock soon. One of them replied “I think we might be able to help you there”. They were part of a trade commission from Tanganyika seeking to negotiate a new contract with The Ministry of Food. They said K.N.C.U coffee was available and that there were no reasons why the supply should stop.

So for a time, it all looked positive. But it would take years before we regularly obtained the quality Chagga coffee we wanted.

It was so frustrating. The K.N.C.U wanted to sell to us. However, the London wholesalers and brokers said the coffee was unobtainable, except for very low grades. This of course was not true. In the end, my father realised they had no intention of supplying us. They had their own areas of trade and promoting this K.N.C.U coffee wasn’t one of them. My father heard that they were annoyed. “Who was Mr Higgins to determine where they should get supplies. Mr Higgins was a retailer. Retailers bought their coffees through the international wholesalers and shippers. It was how things were done”.

We discussed the problem. We all believed in this coffee. There was only one solution: a personal visit to meet the growers. Almost at the moment we had made that decision, The U.K. Coffee Publicity Organisation in conjunction with The Coffee Board of Kenya announced they were organising a visit to East Africa for UK coffee roasters and suppliers. There would be opportunities to see the coffee industries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. My father booked his place, and on 16th January 1960, he set out on a journey that would change his life and ours.

The major London wholesalers were pleased to see my father on the trip. They were seeking to extend their areas of influence, and at the same time steer my father away from going it alone and subsequently into their plans for the future. In short, no rocking the boat.

But there were other factors at work which they could not control. No one could. The East African community was about to undergo a fundamental upheaval as Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika became independent countries. Harold Macmillan was about to make his famous speech “The wind of change is blowing through this continent…” Forces were on the move and the old ways of doing business were not necessarily going to become the new ways.

The hospitality in Kenya, organised by The Coffee Board of Kenya, was magnificent. The programme of visits to coffee farms, visits to the wildlife reserves, all of the wonderful scenery that Kenya could produce was breath taking. After that were the evening functions and cocktail parties. Although cocktail parties were not really my father's thing, he said he managed.

My father was to stay at The Norfolk Hotel, at the time regarded as one of the best hotels in Nairobi. It also happened that representatives of the larger wholesalers were also there. But someone asked my father if he would consider changing hotels, as they wanted to join the group staying at The Norfolk. My father readily agreed, and moved to a hotel which was adequate but not so prestigious. Most of the party thought my father was mad to change. But my father says in his diary “They didn’t know what I knew. I had slipped away from the gang”

The programme included visits by the press, newspapers and radio. The press were interested in my father, to the surprise and annoyance of some of the larger operators. He had made several appearance on radio in the UK and the BBC World Service, and this had got through to the Kenya press. They wanted to know about Mr Higgins who ran a retail business in London’s West End and who had talked about buying coffee from African farmers.

My father was a trained public speaker. He did his homework, knew his stuff, didn’t require notes, an interviewers dream. Even those in the trade who disagreed with him respected his knowledge and his long association with the coffee trade which dated well before he began his own enterprise. And his passion for good coffee.

Before he left London, he had made plans to meet the K.N.C.U. in person. So at 6.15 am on Monday 25th January 1960, he slipped away from the main party and began the 230 mile journey from Nairobi to Moshi in Tanzania. He felt very alone.

He had decided to make the journey by bus. It was cheaper than flying but was a scheduled as a nine hour journey with lots of stops. A few had heard of his plan and were aghast at the idea. If he was determined to travel by bus, he should at least go first class!

He was the first to arrive for the journey. Some of his fellow travellers thought as a European that he should not be travelling in this way. But the conductor said he had paid his fare and that was all there was to it. This was more than some passengers had. Two passengers trying to avoid payment by being heaved up through the side windows by their friends were swiftly ejected from the bus.

The bus was running late but my father didn't mind. The scene unfolding before him entranced him. The people, the women so gracious balancing pots and bundles on their heads as well as carrying children, the light, the colour. They were shy at first, and a bit withdrawn. Who was this strange European travelling on their bus? But my father was a people person and he soon got his fellow passengers talking. He explained some of the story of why he was there and they were soon enthusiastically explaining everything about the areas they were passing through.

As the bus stopped to pick up new passengers, there were minor dramas. Especially if they were Masai, tall and proud. As they came in, consequently so did the flies, hundreds of them. Fortunately, they couldn’t reach the first class part of the bus. One of my father’s travelling companions told him that the Masai never brush off the flies, believing that if they do their cattle will die. A furious argument ensued at one stop. Two passengers tried slipping on to the bus with two goats hiding under their garments while another new passenger engaged the conductor. But the driver was having none of it! Off went the passengers and the goats and the swarm of flies rushed after them.

Finally he reached his destination of Moshi. A sweltering town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. My father checked in at his hotel, arranged for him by the K.N.C.U. He had a lovely room with a fantastic view of Mount Kilimanjaro. He could see the heavily snow capped peak and the lower slopes shrouded by cloud.

The next morning, he went in search of the K.N.C.U. After some time walking about in the heat got a taxi back to the hotel. He asked directions at the desk and found that the K.N.C.U. marketing office was on the second floor of the building he was staying in. The K.N.C.U. owned by the Coffee Tree Hostel. He was staying in a room on the next floor.

The first person he met was the Marketing Officer, Mr Shauri Joseph. Mr Joseph was one of the two men who had walked into his shop all that time ago. My father learned that they had all been waiting for him, the director and staff. He met with Mr Bennet, a European who had been living in Tanganyika for many years. He was the director responsible for helping the K.N.C.U. expand quality production into new markets. The K.N.C.U. had a carefully thought out plan to cover my father’s visits.

The programme was full. There were scheduled visits to co-operative societies, the Coffee Curing Works and the coffee research station, plus an auction on the following Thursday. There was also some time staying at Mr Bennet’s house. My father would see all of the work done by the K.N.C.U.

The Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union consisted of Chagga farms. During his visits, my father saw how the K.N.C.U. looked after the farmers. They offered financial support and guidance, providing loans as well as arranging stage payments as soon as the farmers delivered coffee to the Curing Works and final payments when their coffee was sold in auction. They also ran a commercial college and helped with arranging education.

It was difficult to make growing coffee pay. Coffee prices were low and the farmers disheartened. For many years, auctions of Tanzanian coffee were held in Nairobi. Unfortunately, there had been corruption resulting in some officials going to prison. Mr Bennet moved the auctions of Tanzanian coffee out of Nairobi to Moshi. The buyers who attended the Kenya auctions were now refusing to fly down to Moshi.

Some of the European buyers had said that their K.N.C.U. coffee would probably never reach the standard to attract international recognition. My father immediately countered this idea. The outstanding examples we had tasted had been the thing to spark our interest. It was true that not all of their coffee was outstanding of course. In fact, a lot of it wasn’t but this can be said of most coffee producing countries. He encouraged them to believe that they could produce coffee which would rank along the best in the world. The natural resources were fantastic. Plus their coffee, at its best, had a fullness and richness plus subtle acidity that coffee drinkers would love.

I don’t think they had met a European quite like my father. They realised he hadn’t come to drive a hard bargain, but to build a relationship instead. Equal to what he had always done with the customers who purchased so regularly from us in the shop or by mail order.

Mr Bennet introduced my father to other members of the K.N.C.U. team as the first friend the Chagga had in England. He told my father that H. R. Higgins (Coffee-man) Ltd. was now officially a direct customer of the K.N.C.U. There was nothing in the East African Trade regulations that forbade it. It had been hinted to my father in London, that direct business as he was proposing was against the rules. Mr Bennet said that If any more issues arose with the London Coffee Trade, he would deal with them. He knew all the people involved.

We would now buy direct. My father had completed talks with the representative of the clearing and forwarding agents that would handle the shipments.

The rest of the European coffee group arrived in Moshi. Some tried tempting my father into becoming part of their plans for trade with Tanzania to no avail. He had achieved what he set out to do. Above all, he had made friends and formed relationships that would continue into the future.

As he arrived back at London Airport there was a message over the loud speaker system "Would Mr H. R. Higgins please contact the B.B.C. outside the building once he has completed customs?”. They wanted to record an interview.

My mother and I waited for him, and she speculated on what sort of gifts he might bring back. I told her not to get too excited. Sure enough there he was, carrying two young coffee trees and a bag of the red volcanic soil of Mount Kilimanjaro. How he got them through customs I shall never know!

My very best wishes

Tony Higgins


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