So Titus Gitau, 34, and Stephen Njukia, 38, went to work on a way to get a better price and prompt payment for farmers in eastern Africa who grow the specialty coffees prized by connoisseurs and trendy coffee shops in America, Europe and Japan.
After the world's first Internet coffee auction was held in Brazil in 1999, they were confident African coffee producers and exporters could offer their product to the world in the same way.
Working with the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the two men helped set up the East African Fine Coffee Association.
Online exchange developed
After a tasting competition where prospective buyers got to sample the wares, they held their first auction in April on africalion.com, their online exchange developed from scratch by Kenyan software engineer Anthony Kagotho.
Ueshima Coffee Co. of Japan paid $453 each for two of the 167 50-kilogram bags on offer ? a record and $106 more than the same coffee earned on the traditional trading floor at Nairobi's weekly auction.
Only 3 million of the 114 million bags of Kenyan coffee sold last year were classed as specialty ? a quality determined by the soil, altitude, rainfall and temperature where the coffee is grown as well as by the care it receives.
But Gitau and Njukia believe that specialty coffee is where the money lies for farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia ? the home of Coffee arabica, which accounts for two-thirds of global commercial coffee production and which fetches much higher prices than canephora or robusta, its much hardier but lower quality relative.
Although Kenya, the largest producer of quality arabica in the region, accounts for less than 1 percent of all coffee sold on the world market, 95 percent of its output is arabica. And coffee is Kenya's fourth-largest earner of foreign exchange.
Njukia acknowledged that the countries of the region can't compete in volume, but they can and should compete in quality, which can fetch the highest prices.
Africalion charges the buyer 1 percent of the value of each bag sold online.
"Burundi has really top quality specialty coffee, but who knows about Burundi?" Gitau said. "The Internet works to let small but discriminating roasters know what's out there."
Both Gitau and Njukia are from coffee-farming families in central Kenya, home to some of the world's best specialty coffees. Proceeds from coffee grown during Kenya's heydays in the 1960s and '70s paid for their education at the University of Southern California and Texas Tech.
But Kenya's coffee production, 65 percent of which comes from farms of 0.4 hectares or smaller, has declined by half over the past decade. This has been largely due to mismanagement and corruption in the coffee cooperatives and on the government coffee board, which has recently been transformed from a marketer to an industry regulator.
Farmers, most of whom have had no way of knowing what their coffee sells for at auction, wait for months to get paid by the cooperatives, which then cut earnings even further by charging farmers for fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide they often never receive.
Coffee legislation says farmers must be paid within 30 days, but Gitau and Njukia are convinced they can reduce that to 24 hours. What they need is $1.25-million in venture capital to set up a proper exchange, a laboratory to verify quality and an information network to let farmers know about prices in Nairobi ? and around the world.
"What the market is looking for is consistency, and this depends on the farmer being paid regularly and promptly," Njukia said.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
Dirk Sickmuller, managing director of Taylor Winch, one of the two main exporters of high quality coffee in the region, said the higher prices at the online auction were largely a result of novelty.
"If you give something into a big market, and you give it in extremely small quantity, then prices will be fantastic," he said. Michael Otieno of the Coffee Board of Kenya doubts the online auction will bring much benefit to farmers since the quantities are small.
He claims that the need to prepare and sample coffee for regional tasting competitions will limit the number of auctions to two a year. But Gitau and Njukia say once quality is established and publicised, all this will no longer be necessary.
"As much as the system is good idea, we don't want to send a wrong signal that will make farmers think it's magic," Otieno said. Under existing legislation, all Kenyan coffee must be sold first on the Coffee Board's weekly Nairobi auction; but dealers are free to buy coffee at the farm gate in the other five countries in the fine coffee association.
Gitau and Njukia know they need to convince conventional traders and exporters in Nairobi that the online auction will not cut them out of business.
"We're not here to cut them out; we want to offer an alternative market, and that's where you have a choice to choose which one to give your products to," Njukia said.
Sickmuller says the supply of specialty coffee is growing faster than demand, which will ultimately make prices fall.
But Peter Munuhe, chairperson of the Thiriku cooperative that produced the record-breaking coffee, said it's obvious that there is a ready market.
"Our members are advised on good husbandry to achieve good grades to attain the best classification and by so doing earn good prices," he said in the village where well-spaced coffee trees with bright green leaves looked healthier than on many other farms in the area.
"We have achieved the quality, we want to stick to it and try hard to produce more," he said.
On the Web: Lion Coffee Co. Ltd. www.africalion.com