Three-time Kenyan barista champion Martin Shabaya talks about why he competes, how he ended up in coffee, and what he hopes for the future of the industry.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Martin Shabaya is the head barista at Artcaffe in Nairobi, Kenya, and the three-time Kenyan Barista Champion. During the World Barista Championship in Seoul in November 2017, Martin became the first person representing an African country to make it to the semifinal round of competition. In this interview, we talk about this historic moment, along with what motivates him to compete and his hopes for the future of the coffee industry.
Ashley Rodriguez: How did you get into coffee? What was your first coffee job?
Martin Shabaya: I got into coffee by chance. A need arose at home after my high school that forced me into looking for something to do. That is when I got an opportunity behind the counter at one of the Artcaffe restaurants in Nairobi. I am still on my first job.
AR: What is your current job now? What does your day-to-day look like?
MS: I am still working behind the counter as the head barista of Artcaffe. I go around to all the Artcaffe outlets, training baristas mainly on quality assurance and professionalism.
AR: What made you decide to compete? Can you walk us through some of your early coffee competitions?
MS: I had never heard about barista competitions until Artcaffe was invited to participate [in a national competition] for the first time in the year 2014. I was privileged to be selected among many to represent the company. Because it was new to me, and I was to compete with previous champions and those who’d done it before, I had to do a lot of research to understand what it was all about.
That year I managed to place first runner-up, something that shocked many, including myself … but still I didn’t realize how far the competitions could take me. I work in a specialty coffee shop with a bakery, and I had a lot of interest in learning more about bakery also. So I requested a transfer from the bar to the bakery, which happened that same year.
Come 2015 competitions, I wasn’t really [going] to compete since I was a bakery chef by then. Coffee friends and enthusiasts who saw my previous performance pushed me to try once more because they thought I was whiskers away from winning the Kenya title. Guess what—they were right! Even without much preparation, for it was about three weeks to the competition [when I decided to compete]. Since then, I have managed a hat trick on the national title!
AR: Have you received a lot of attention being the three-time Kenyan champion?
MS: Winning has given me everything. After winning, I was changed immediately from a bakery chef to the head barista, a new position in the company created that was never there [before]. For sure maintaining the title made me a little more popular in Kenya and Africa at large. What melts my heart is the inspiration to other baristas who contact me and really yearn to dive deeper into coffee.
AR: Was there anything different about last year’s competition in Seoul for you? Will you compete again?
MS: Of course for me everything was different in Seoul. For the first time I presented twice in WBC. For the first time Kenya was in the semifinals. For the first time Africa was in the semis. For the first time there was a wild card. I was the first ever to win the wild card. All this is super huge to me!
AR: As you mention, you being in the semifinals was the first time both someone from Kenya and from Africa ended up in the top 18. How did that feel? Do you want to be remembered for being the first? Why do you think it’s taken so long?
MS: I felt really humbled by Africa being in the semis for the first time. Yes it had taken so long, but now it has really motivated us here and everyone believes it is even very possible also in the finals. In my opinion, it has taken longer because of less exposure.
AR: You were on the All-Stars team for World Coffee Events—what did that mean to you?
MS: It meant the world to me. I was so humbled finding myself amongst world champions in the industry. I took advantage of the opportunity and learnt loads. I can’t wait to be part of the All-Stars again in the future.
AR: What feels important to you in coffee? What do you want your future in the industry to look like?
MS: Coffee to me brings people together. It’s a culture that we can share by creating the opportunities that are bigger for all of us. I would be happier to share in the future all I have learnt in the industry by promoting the full chain from the producer to the consumer.
AR: What’s important to you outside of coffee?
MS: Family of course, but also art and woodworking has a portion in my heart.