The fetching farmer: Using agricultural and biosystems engineering to set up coffee farms

Cleotilda Jemutai

Cleotilda Jemutai.

Photo credit: Pool

Perhaps Cleotilda Jemutai was always born to be a star. For starters, she is a model. If that doesn’t turn your head, then know this: she is also an agriculturalist, svelte yet athletic, another petite girl made larger than life by her exploits and hard work. Tough and flinty and shrewd, beauty balanced by practicality.

She is famous among the kind of people who read agriculture magazines or those who want to know where their tea actually comes from. She does not let her beauty speak for her; she is not that kind of girl. She has no interest in becoming a content creator; she is not that kind of girl either.

She is the kind of girl you see once and never again. Let’s be clear: All her life she has walked a highwire tightrope, both interesting and confusing because, as a rule of thumb, a woman generally doesn’t present herself as both beauty and brains.

Beauty rarely challenges men, but intelligence does. Women who are admired as beauties risk being dismissed as not being brainy. But Jemutai is both. It is impossible to dismiss her outlook, and it is impossible to ignore her looks. In a way, it is the perfect image: In a society that so often decrees that you can only be one thing, she is like a ray of sunshine at the wet end of August, a breath of fresh air.

She has done a lot, and she is only just getting started. The hard way too, however easy she makes it look. How did she get here, this agricultural and biosystems engineer practising in the tea industry?

“I have been quite passionate about agriculture since I was young. My father was a first-generation kind of farmer, and I grew up interacting with agricultural systems, specifically dairy, subsistence and tea farming. That was all the motivation I needed to pursue agriculture in university, but my mom was having none of it. Eventually, something had to give and I stuck to my guns. I told her I was a farmer.” Or perhaps, a daddy’s girl.

She went to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) to pursue an undergraduate degree in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Soil, Water and Environmental Engineering. “When I joined university, this was a new course in the department. I think I was in the second ever cohort, and that presented us with the challenge and uncertainty of a glaring lack of job opportunities.

The course was a merger between agricultural engineering and bioprocessing engineering.” She graduated in 2019 with a second-class upper division. “I was the best in my class, if I do say so myself.”

She did her attachment at a tea factory in Tinderet and then taught part-time at the Kenya Water Institute before joining Eastern Produce Kenya, where she works as an assistant factory manager. “The tea industry is quite diverse, and I have been here for a year and a few months.

It is very intense, understanding the art of manufacturing tea from the nurseries till you have the final product in the market.” At just 27, tireless focus has imbued her with the charm of knowledge. “I have this burning passion and want to get deeper in the coffee value chain.

When people wonder why I am invested in two warring beverages, tea and coffee, I tell them now I am planting my own coffee. I want more youth to venture into high value crops. That’s why I have Twitter conversations about the coffee economy.

 Many young people are going into coffee, and I believe there has never been a better time to start trying out farming.” Her love affair with agriculture bloomed when she discovered that someone needed to feed the nation. That someone could be her. That someone should be her, she thought.

“With the rapid climate change we have to develop resilience and need to interact with the environment seamlessly. This is how I show my love for the environment, by choosing to protect it.” It is one thing to choose. It’s another thing to be chosen. She is both. It was written in the stars. I mean, in 2017, she was Miss Earth (JKUAT).

“I realised maybe modelling isn’t too bad either. I was lucky to be among the selected few championing the environment… that you can have different platforms to speak up …and that I could use my voice for change.”

The devil works hard but even he will tell you, Jemutai works harder. What keeps her driven? “My mantra for quite a long time has been to always keep the focus. I already identified my niche in the agricultural space. I stick to my lane and drive forward in it. I love being consistent but I know discipline is the key.

There is no shortcut; you have to put in the work. You need to be smart, detailed and precise, at least in this industry. You can’t go wrong when you are designing a system.”

She does not wear her work rate, her physicality, on her sleeve. She is, instead, elegant and graceful; the best metaphor to summarise her would be that she is like a duck, serene and calm above water, but paddling furiously underneath. The problem is, effortlessness can seem like a lack of effort.

Not that she will lose any sleep over that. Her work speaks for itself. The highlight reel of her exploits is stuck on the progress that she has made in developing and growing her career. “And of course, being a parent. My daughter is three years and seven months old.”

How she keeps all these plates floating in the air is a marvel of balance and multi-tasking worthy of a standing ovation. It’s a high-wire act, Philippe Petite with boxing gloves on.

“You need to know how to manage your time, otherwise your time will manage you. Plan yourself, plan effectively but don’t be too hard on yourself. Life can be hard at times but pick yourself up and move on, head held high.” How does she define success? “Success to me is achieving your goals and not being in a rush. Things happen with time. Seeking help and advice, and having a support system, (people) that can hold your hand, that you can bounce ideas off of.”

The future, she says, is encouraging the youth to embrace technology. It doesn’t have to be rocket science or reinventing the wheel. The future is innovative, and we are the innovators, she says. Jemutai runs her own firm, Zurrii Coffee Consultancy, offering coffee farm design and setup services, agronomy support and on-farm training. She is an introvert. “I just like my own space, but it’s not that I am shy. I speak and will stand up for myself if I have to.” But, she adds, she rarely has to. Love yourself, treat people fairly, and choose happiness. Those are the three things she would want to plant in anyone. In everyone. Have things turned out the way she expected at 27?

 “On a scale of one to 10, I’ll give myself a six. I thought after my undergraduate studies I would proceed to do my Masters but I am working on that now.” She got here through hard work, and cannot afford to fail.

“I am afraid of failure, so I will make sure I win. I am a winner. All my failures have made me who I am.” And she is not just a star, but a supernova.

Despite being so young, there is a sense that she has always been here, always been the best, a model of consistency and reliability. Who needs a scriptwriter when you can write your own story?

This article was first published in The Weekly Review.