Delivering Keynote Address: Phyllis Johnson, BD Imports,  Kigali Rwanda - 2019 AFCA Conference

Delivering Keynote Address: Phyllis Johnson, BD Imports, Kigali Rwanda - 2019 AFCA Conference

February 13, 2019

Phyllis Johnson: Keynote Address African Fine Coffees Association 2019

Thank You to the African Fine Coffees Association Board of Directors, Executive Director, Staff and Conference organizers, government officials, sponsors, attendees, and the millions of coffee farmers and workers around the globe that allow us to be here today.  It’s exciting to be in Rwanda - A beautiful and special place to celebrate AFCA’s 17th conference  

Africa, it may seem that the world has forgotten about your contributions to coffee, that you haven’t reaped the full benefit of being the continent that gave the world coffee. Thank you -   Ethiopia.  While the history of how coffee spread throughout East Africa acknowledges the contributions of the missionaries and colonists, there’s more to the story.    As an industry, we ignore the enormous contributions to coffee made by enslaved West Africans.  Those who were taken to the Americas and responsible for producing the first commercial crops in Brazil, the West Indies, and the Caribbean. As a member of the African diaspora, an African American, I represent a US minority group that’s less likely to choose coffee as a beverage of choice and we are under-represented in the industry.   For me, these realities both great and tragic serve as a source of inspiration.  Africa, your contributions to the world, and to coffee are significant. It is an honor to speak with you today.

Specialty Coffees are at the Heart of Africa. Your coffees are responsible for creating millions of smiles and enjoyment around the world each day.  African coffees are often used as the gateway to better understand the differences in how coffees taste. Your coffees can be the best example for non-coffee drinkers to first start to see a difference in taste and that not all coffees are the same.   


With no disrespect to any other coffee-producing countries in the room this morning, Africa, your specialty coffees command attention at the cupping tables, they set the standards when it comes to body, acidity, and overall complexity.   I know some of you are sitting here thinking, well that’s flattering, and TRUE, but are buyers willing to pay for our stand out specialty coffees?  Here’s what I can say,

When the global market prices are low and have been for far too long, and we’re looking at another year of surplus production -  I believe there’s a glimmer of hope.     

The US, coffee consumers are willing to pay more for better coffee!!  According to Euromonitor International, a market researcher, the US spends $14 Billion dollars a year at the retail level on coffee.  While volume isn’t expected to increase very much in the coming years, research shows that American consumers will pay more when there is a greater perceived value.   For the first time in 2018 National Coffee Drinking Trends survey revealed that more US consumers are choosing gourmet/specialty coffee over traditional coffee.  Again, I believe there’s hope.

Can I offer some insight into how I believe we should go about delivering greater perceived value for coffee consumers? What goes into an overall great cup of specialty coffee that makes the consumer want to pay exta?


Inclusiveness:  The Future of Specialty Coffee must be diverse and inclusive. Let me repeat this.  The future of specialty coffee must be diverse and inclusive.

We must not only create a space we must create space that allows everyone to contribute and thrive, we must be inclusive.


The coffee industry’s growth will come from those who are yet to discover coffee


 I believe there are more opportunities for growth in large coffee consuming markets like the US and Brazil. We must be more inclusive, for growth, we must consider all dimensions of diversity, including race. 


  In the 20 years of working in coffee

  • I’ve met too few African American and Afro-Brazilians in the industry
  • Only 42% of Black/ African Americans consume coffee in comparison to 64% Hispanic Americans and 53% Caucasian Americans.
  • Increasing consumption among minority groups will not come about because of clever marketing campaigns by big corporations
  • The US must create opportunities for entrepreneurship to thrive,
  • developing café spaces and products that speak to the authentic hearts and souls of individuals.   


  • We have 44 million Black/African Americans currently spending $1.1 trillion dollars/year and underrepresented
  • If we were a country based on population, we would rank #34 out of 233 countries similar in size to


I believe the opportunity to engage more coffee consumers in Africa will also come from the engagement of entrepreneurs who understand the needs of those they wish to serve. when government and non for profits work together to help businesses and small entrepreneurs thrive.

Bringing more people and ideas to the table is imperative.  The world must be more inclusive.

Specialty coffees are at the Heart of Africa.  It is a heart that’s filled with determination, hopes, and dreams, a heart that pounds inside millions of women who meticulously work hard at picking and sorting coffee beans.  Hearts that believe in a brighter future, a better world. Specialty coffees are at the Heart of Africa when there’s space for women to use their talents not only in manual labor but inside the board room and in decision making roles.

Let me be the first to say, we are making progress, but we have more work to do. 

Let us look more closely to exam ourselves.

Policies and practices that determine who sits in boardrooms and executive offices must not exclude anyone.  If your policies and practices are barriers, they must be changed.    

Non for profits, governments, corporations if your teams don’t resemble those you serve (customers), those who serve you, (your suppliers), or those you want to serve, (potential new customers) then you have oversight in your decision making and you’re missing a perspective and this needs to change.     

We must realize that breakthrough idea will come from having all voices at the table.     

I had the pleasure of being involved in the early stages of working with women in coffee here in Africa in 2009.   This work was led by the International Women’s Coffee Alliance with support from the UN International Trade Centre and others.   I’m proud to see many of you in the room today who lead various programs to help support women.  Women are the backbone of the global coffee supply chain.

If you don’t do anything else, I invite you to attend the International Women’s Coffee Alliance breakfast in the morning to learn about the work that’s going on here in Africa.    

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 5th Annual Coffee Santhe held in Bangalore, India, a 3-day event organized by the Women’s Coffee Alliance- India.  Part of the program included over 100 children participating in an art competition, drawings must include coffee.  As I walked around checking out the art, 6-year-old Ga-ni-ka’s art caught my eye. 

I would describe as 4 major principles to understanding coffee:

  • First, there are two kinds of coffee, Arabica, and Robusta,
  • Second, Coffee is a process, it has to somehow move from a plant to someone’s cup
  • Third, there is a human element to coffee, a strong connection to life and livelihood
  • Fourth, Coffee should be inclusive, the only way we can solve the challenges we face is by coming together, holding hands as Ganika depicts in her drawing.     
15 years ago I attended the 1st AFCA conference held in Nairobi Kenya. I was inspired by what I learned then.  Today I am encouraged by the progress that has been made.  I hope the 2019 AFCA conference inspires you to invite more people to your table thus adding more ideas, and as a result adding more value to the cup of coffee consumers.


Thank You