The African connection

Widely recognised as the birthplace of the bean, craved by its fans across the globe, African coffee deservedly attracts acclaim. Catherine Jones talks to Phil Schluter

For one coffee bean importer, the relationship with Africa goes much further than a simple buy and sell trade arrangement. Schluter is relatively small, but its history dates back six generations and it has an association with Africa that’s lasted 100 years – ever since the first days of commercial coffee production in the continent.

Schluter originated in Liverpool in 1858, with two brothers moving from Germany to start trading in a variety of goods. The particular link with Africa and coffee was formed in 1939, when the grandfather of current managing director, Phil Schluter, was sent to fight for the British Army in Eritrea. While in Nairobi, he met the daughter of a Kenyan coffee grower and the couple fell in love. ‘My grandfather stayed in East Africa after the war. When he died in 1979, my grandmother took over the business with my uncle.’

Phil spent his childhood in Africa; and now, working from his office in Liverpool, he talks of the total commitment to the land and its people, an ethos that’s bound up in the company’s Christian values. For him, the coffee trade is about investing in Africa’s future, forming trusted relationships and creating a business which benefits all the parties involved. He also firmly believes that African coffee is the best in the world. ‘Its flavour profiles are second to none and East African coffees attract the highest premiums on a consistent basis,’ he says.

But Phil emphasises that being smallholder-grown on subsistence farms means it’s crucial we find out where coffee comes from and for importers like him to pass on this information. ‘If people want coffee to make a difference they should ask questions, all down the line. It’s a responsibility of everyone,’ he says.

Phil talks of the stunning beauty of East Africa, ‘the greenest place on earth’ where people have so little, and yet are so rich in other, perhaps less measurable ways. ‘The warmth of the people, the richness of the colours, tastes and smells, the golden sunshine, the breathtaking landscapes, the animals and beaches. There is nowhere quite like it,’ he says.

So deep is his attachment, I’m left wondering why Phil isn’t living in Africa. ‘I will, as soon as I can,’ he says with utter conviction. ‘Africa gets under your skin, it runs deep in your blood.’

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