Coffee Talk Kenya – meet Esther Otieno, barista trainer, coffee consultant and coffee lover

After posting a coffee guide listing specialty coffee shops in Nairobi late last year, and still having my base in Nairobi where I decided to expand my coffee knowledge, and arguably expertise, it’s time to introduce you to some of the coffee people I’ve met along the way on my Kenyan coffee mission.

First up is Esther, who is actually responsible that some of the coffee shops I mentioned in my last post have great baristas. I first met her when I was given the chance to be one of the judges at Kenya’s National Barista Championships. My next (coffee) honour was being a judge at the Nairobi Latte Art Throwdown, which Esther organises each year. Having been impressed, not only by Esther’s expertise but also her passion for anything concerning coffee, I decided to take some classes with her to up my barista game.

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Esther already worked in coffee for numerous years before she started her own company, BaristaPro Ltd, mid 2014. BaristaPro specialises in providing professional barista skills training and coffee education. Their aim is to develop professionally trained baristas who will promote the quality of brewed coffee wherever they go. Having had good feedback about her courses, it was an easy decision for me to enrol with BaristaPro. After a week’s course, consisting of 5 days with 3 hours of class a day I can highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become a barista or improve their already existing skills. After this possibly too lengthy introduction it’s time to hear what Esther has to say…

Esther, let’s start with how your coffee career began and how you got into teaching people about coffee, especially with the focus being teaching barista skills? What’s your actual background if you haven’t always been working in the coffee industry?

My background was in marketing and business management before landing in the coffee industry. I was given a tip about an admin job in a coffee company (Dormans). However they thought I was best suited for business development, a new department being created by the company at the time to help boost sales. In this job, we were required to have a general coffee knowledge, from tree to cup, including good barista skills since we were focussed on hospitality clients, who needed to be trained on how to best brew coffee.  

At the same company, a new position opened up to head the barista school, which was the first one in Kenya at the time. I was offered the job and accepted. With no experience in running a barista school, it was a challenge but eventually I learned the ropes and became a seasoned barista trainer. That’s how I got into teaching coffee.

In 2006 I was in the pioneer class of the training of trainers program for SCAE (Speciality Coffee Association of Europe). I focused on barista skills because I find it more interesting, plus I am passionate about youth empowerment and was moved to see how many youths we trained managed to get jobs through the skills they learnt as baristas. I really felt that I was making meaningful impact. 

What do you like most about your job as a barista trainer?

Many things… 

1. Demystifying coffee for students seeing many Kenyans unfortunately don’t really know much about coffee, and seeing them gain skills that can land them a job.
2. That I can dress casually at work 🙂 
3. The smell of coffee and drinking good coffee all day 🙂 

I fully get point 2, especially as ever since graduating and working in full time employment, I’ve gone to work more often in flipflops than wearing a suit 😉

Is there any advice you can give to people who might want to follow your foot steps and also become a barista trainer?

Learn as much as you can, master the craft of brewing, start teaching wherever you are as it makes for good practice, invest in coffee education and certifications to broaden knowledge and exposure. 

Some people see teaching as a calling. Would you agree?  

100% YES!! There are personality traits that you may need to have such as understanding, patience, being good at giving instructions, public speaking, presentation skills, etc. If you don’t have these, you may fail to deliver as a good teacher, and these things affect how you impact students. 

Is there anything in particular which you think might make being a barista in Nairobi or Kenya different to other countries?

When comparing to our western counterparts, maybe exposure. They have more exposure than we do when it comes to coffee drinking culture and therefore we need to level up! 

If you have had the chance to experience the coffee scene in other countries, how would you compare Nairobi’s coffee scene?

In the region (Africa), Nairobi’s coffee scene is more vibrant than most countries and is growing every year. This can be seen by the increase in branches by the coffee chains and also the opening of new speciality coffee shops. On top of that our baristas are more knowledgeable and skilled than in most of our neighbouring countries, making them high in demand, especially in the gulf countries. We have a long way to go though compared to the coffee scene in places like Europe, America, Asia (Korea/China/Japan) and Australia. There is hope, we can catch up eventually 🙂  

What’s your favourite coffee drink and origin at the moment? Why?

Black filter coffee is my favourite coffee drink (I am not such a fan of milk). Mostly Kenyan origin, simply as that’s the coffee I mostly have access to. Through a visiting guest trainer, I recently had coffees from other origins and enjoyed some washed Ethiopian and Colombian coffees.

What about coffee inspires you? Where does your passion come from and what keeps it going?

I am inspired by the growth in the industry, the coffee revolution, people’s growing interest to know/learn more about coffee, and the demand for improved standards for brewed coffee in hospitality establishments .

My passion comes from the love I have for good coffee and to see it being understood as a product (hence my passion to educate on coffee) and brewed correctly for everyone to enjoy. What keeps it going is seeing people who never knew about coffee starting to understand, appreciate, brew and drink coffee. 

Thanks Esther for sharing your insights, and also for teaching me and inspiring me to practice as much as possible. I’ve definitely noticed that it takes quite some time to reach a certain level and without constant practice, it’s even hard to get any of the “basic” latte art patterns to look decent enough that I would share them with friends or post them on instagram 🙂


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