Bahati Mlwilo lives by a simple motto: “I want to die empty.”
“When I was a young kid, my dream was one day, I need to be someone that is teaching others,” she says. “I love to train farmers. I love to offer knowledge. I’ve learned a lot in coffee, but I’m still learning. I don’t want to die with this knowledge.”
As an agronomist with the Starbucks Farmer Support Center in Tanzania – one of 10 Starbucks operates in key coffee-producing regions – Mlwilo lives out her mission of sharing everything she can in a region with between 4,000-5,000 mostly smallholder farms, usually supporting a single family with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming. She holds workshops and makes personal visits, helping farmers understand how to implement C.A.F.E practices and improve their coffee quality and production, while also pushing them to work with a long-term sustainability mindset.
“We are making progress,” she says. “The issue of social responsibility, for example, farmers are realizing it’s important in our society to pay your workers a correct wage to improve their lives, improve their farms. More and more are using manure and organic fertilizers. We are helping them do soil analysis and understand the makeup of the soil conditions. And you see the farms improving.”
The daughter of two teachers, Mlwilo has always been curious to know more. It drove her to study food science and technology at a top agricultural university, then to earn two master’s degrees, one locally in business administration and another in Italy in coffee economics and science.
About 11 years ago, she started working in coffee as a quality advisor for an international nonprofit, which led her to eventually becoming the first woman coffee quality grader in Tanzania. She joined Starbucks six years ago as an agronomist, seeing an opportunity to help people in a region where many lack formal education and operate with a short-term mindset.
For example, she says, farming vegetables can mean quick cash: a crop of maize, bananas or beans can be produced in just a few months. A coffee tree, by comparison, takes three to four years to fully mature.
“Coffee pays if you do it as a business,” she says, but that requires a greater investment of resources and more technical and business training in topics such as reducing water consumption and operational costs, along with the patience to withstand fluctuating market prices or a bad weather season.
More farmers are embracing the business mindset and taking a longer-term view, Mlwilo says, and she’s hoping they can be an example to others. “The thing I enjoy the most is when I see the impact on the ground, when you do something and it creates a positive impact to farmers,” she says. “When they see the results, they change.”
"We want to inspire them to do jobs that are traditionally men’s jobs. We want to inspire women to know they can do it.”
A more personal goal for Mlwilo is to help recognize the work of women in coffee, which in Tanzania is still mostly in the background, and to help them get a foothold in farm and land ownership and in jobs usually taken by men, such as quality control, exporting and buying. She leads the Tanzania chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance and sets up regular virtual and in-person coffee trainings, and meetings with coffee-producing women in other countries.
“We want these women to see other opportunities in the coffee value chain, we want them to connect and be empowered and learn from each other,” Mlwilo says. “Some of them have never seen some of these things. We want to inspire them to do jobs that are traditionally men’s jobs. We want to inspire women to know they can do it.”