December 21, 2021

WBC 2021: Reflecting on how coffee producing countries took centre stage


Earlier this year, the World Barista Championship (WBC) made headlines in more ways than one. After a 30-month hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it returned to the stage at HostMilano in late October 2021.

However, as well as this, the competition saw Diego Campos (Colombia) crowned World Champion as well as Martin Shabaya (Kenya) making the top 6. Campos was the third winner from a coffee-producing country in the last 20 years.

This raises a question: does his victory and Martin’s placement as a finalist set a precedent for future championships? Will we see more and more winners from producing countries in the years to come? 

To answer this question and learn more, I spoke to Federico Bolanos, Sasa Sestic, David Ngibuini from Maguta Estate, and Sara Yirga from YA Coffee Roasters. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article addressing colonial inequalities in the coffee sector.

The 2021 World Barista Championship: An overview

The World Barista Championship focuses on promoting excellence in coffee, advancing the barista profession, and engaging a worldwide audience by hosting an annual championship event. This serves as the culmination of local and regional events around the globe.

WCE-certified judges from around the world evaluate each performance on the taste of beverages served, cleanliness, creativity, technical skill, and overall presentation. 

Out of 50 competitors, the top 15 highest-scoring competitors from the first round, plus a wild-card winner from the Team Competition, advance to a semifinal round. The top six competitors in the semifinal round advance to the finals round, from which one winner is named World Barista Champion.

The top six competitors at WBC 2021 were:

1. Diego Campos, Colombia

2. Andrea Allen, United States

3. Hugh Kelly, Australia

4. Emi Fukahori, Switzerland

5. Martin Shabaya, Kenya

6. Wojciech Tysler, Ireland

Two of the six winners hailed from coffee producing countries. For them, the victory represented a personal triumph, as well as serving as a milestone for their countries’ coffee sectors.

Diego Campos took the winning title using Colombian coffee. Draped in the yellow, blue, and red Colombian flag, Campos dedicated his victory to his country in an emotional speech.

“I love my country; I love Colombian coffee,” he said. “This is for you, Colombia. This is for you — all the farmers, all the families, all the pickers, all the hard work.”

Similarly, Martin Shabaya from Kenya becoming the first African champion to place in the finals was an historic moment. Much like Campos, Shabaya’s victory was doubly momentous because he placed in the top six using Kenyan coffees.

The champion’s journey: Becoming “producer-led”

Diego and Martin’s journeys to become barista champions involved the hard work, determination, skill and commitment that one would expect. But each of their stories is inspiring for another reason.

Paying tribute to Colombia

Federico Bolanos was Diego Campos’ coach for this championship. That means in total, he has coached three WBC champions, two finalists, five semi-finalists and 18 national champions.

He told me about his own journey as a barista from El Salvador, and how it ended up intersecting with Diego’s:

“It gives me goosebumps to think about my dream and how I started,” he says. “The first time I walked into a competition arena in 2006, I had no idea about this world. 

“But I knew, the moment I walked in, I wanted to be the first barista champion from a producing country, or at least contribute to making that happen.”

He tells me that at the time, most people found it impossible to imagine a barista from El Salvador competing internationally, let alone winning. 

Five years later, he proved them wrong at the 2011 WBC in Bogotá when his student Alejandro Mendez, also Salvadoran, was crowned world champion. 

“When we won that championship, it was an incredible feeling of victory. Winning in Bogotá felt like an even greater win for Latin America. I remember feeling indebted to Colombia. 

“Life is funny that way; I got drawn back to Colombia to coach Diego, which helped me fulfill that promise.”

Putting Kenya on the map 

Saša Šestić is a world champion barista, the founder of ONA Coffee and Project Origin, and Martin Shabaya’s coach for the 2021 WBC.

He tells me that Martin’s victory really started with David Ngibuini, a coffee farmer from Maguta Estate who grew the coffee Martin used.

“David reached out to me in 2019 to learn more about processing and fermentation,” Saša says. “He had read my book, The Coffee Man, and was interested in the processing methods I wrote about.”

Saša explains that David had just inherited his farm at the time, and his coffee was fine, but there was room for improvement. However, impressed by his eagerness to learn and determination to elevate his community and country, Sasa decided to work with him. This led to a partnership through Project Origin.

The alliance gave Sasa the idea to get an African barista to the WBC finals, as part of a wider objective to drive the coffee sector forward and to improve Kenya’s visibility. 

“He said I was crazy,” Saša says. “But I was adamant, and even did it on my own time. 

“With Martin and David, we created this beautiful triangle. It started with the coffee and producer, and then led to the barista and the WBC. Martin’s journey was producer-led.”

What does this mean for coffee producing countries?

On social media and in producing countries, Diego and Martin’s triumphs have been celebrated. 

This is in no small part because of the perceived implications this has for the coffee sector, and for producer countries in particular.

Greater visibility

Diego participated with Coffea eugenioides grown at Finca Las Nubes, from Inmaculada Farms. The obscure species became the talk of the industry after the event, bringing great visibility to the producer, and to Colombian coffee in general.

However, David tells me that Martin used varieties from his estate that are not widely known: Batian and Ruiru. 

“The coffee industry would normally select an SL-28 or SL-24, but not this. The WBC has popularised and recognised other varieties that have potential, when processed in the right way. 

“Since Martin won, more people are asking for samples and contacting me, it’s driving business.’ 

Creating jobs at origin

Sara Yirga is the founder and manager of YA Coffee Roasters in Ethiopia, and a promoter of coffee consumption and value addition at origin. 

She says Martin and Diego’s success can inspire other baristas in coffee producing countries to see coffee as a possible career.

“For us, it’s about job creation,” she says. “We need to access the important conversations that happen around coffee, to build our consumption and professionalise our sector. Winning the WBC is one way of doing that.

“[Young baristas] now see it’s possible. Having someone represent Ethiopia [would be] a dream. I just know it’s going to happen, and we’re working on it.”

Meanwhile, Federico says he has seen evidence of this in El Salvador since Mendez won the WBC in 2011. The barista profession, in his opinion, is now more professionally recognised.

“People now understand they need to acknowledge baristas, invest in their education and reward them more in terms of income differentiation.”

Internal consumption

David says that in Kenya, internal consumption is low. However, following Martin’s success, he’s seen discussion about reviving previously abandoned national championships for latte art and the AeroPress. 

He also says that the government appears to be renewing efforts to boost domestic coffee consumption, using the recent success as a way to drive interest.

Knowledge transfer

According to Sasa, Martin is now more eager than ever to pass on his knowledge.

“He’s connecting with neighbours to share his knowledge, drive this momentum and share the benefits. It’s a beautiful thing. 

“I hope this can be a springboard… hopefully, we start seeing Kenya and neighbouring countries get inspired by the opportunities ahead.”

Does where you’re from influence your chances of winning?

Almost all coffee producing countries are located in the global south, where access to equipment, finance, coaching, knowledge and technology can be more restricted. This can make preparation and training tough for baristas.

However, while Federico agrees with this, he says he doesn’t want to promote a “defeatist attitude”.

“It’s true, but we can’t sit around and mope,” he says. “I always try to tell baristas in Latin America and coffee producing countries that they should never think they are at a disadvantage.”

Sara, meanwhile, says that there is a need to push forward and resolve existing inequalities where resources and opportunities are concerned.

“We should be integrating coffee into our curricula, creating professional platforms, and building a market for higher value coffee,” she says. “We are the origin of coffee, and we should be taking ownership of our product.”

Federico, meanwhile, believes that while there may be access restrictions, competitors from these countries have some other unexpected advantages. For instance, they’re closer to the coffee, and can more easily speak to farmers in person to learn from them.

While regional resource inequity undeniably exists, competing at WBC level still requires exceptional skill, knowledge, and commitment that are rare to find in any individual, in any country.

Creating more opportunities for baristas from producer regions

So, what can we do to make WBC barista training more accessible to baristas from coffee producing countries? 

Educate younger generations

Sara says the best place to start is tapping into young generations who are passionate and eager to learn.

“We need to expose young and driven people to coffee and the opportunities it has to offer,” she says. “It all starts with education at a young age, when they are open to learning new skills and building knowledge.”

To this end, Sara says she is currently working with GIZ on creating an online coffee school. Her aim, she says, is to make coffee a viable, inclusive profession in Ethiopia.

Tailor competitions to local realities

Federico tells me that the WBC and other similar competitions have not been designed for coffee producing countries. 

“As coffee producing countries we need to start valuing ourselves more and stop attaching ourselves to competitions that are already there,” he says. “Instead, we should look at creating opportunities that reflect our own realities.’ 

In Ethiopia, Sara is collaborating with Hyatt Regency Addis on an amateur (but serious) annual barista competition that brings visibility to the barista profession, creates some noise around it and shows it as a valuable skill. 

They bring in international judges and facilitate training in preparation for the event. This kind of opportunity could well prove to be an important step for building young baristas’ confidence. 

The success of 2021’s WBC competitors from producing countries does more than achieve global recognition of their expertise. They are also bringing visibility to their countries’ respective coffee sectors, boosting internal consumption, and positioning the barista profession in a totally new light.

Diego and Martin’s wins were momentous. Moving forward, the hope is that barista champions hailing from coffee producing regions will become a more regular sight.

To push towards that will require change, but promoting education, establishing more geographically inclusive competitions, and cultivating meaningful connections will certainly help make that happen.

You might also like our article on the effectiveness of direct trade in specialty coffee.

Photo credits: Sasa Sestic, Maguta Estate

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