Deaf Kenyan coffee is a story that deserves to be told. In the current world of genocide, suffering, neglect and acts that are unbelievable in the 21st century, it is good to report something that is innovative, thoughtful and caring, not to mention successful.
Tucked behind a non-descript gate in an affluent neighbourhood of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is a social experiment that points the way to how the prospects of deaf people can be transformed. By employing deaf staff, who have faced discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives, the Pallet Cafe shows how integration can work. Hence deaf Kenyan coffee.
Weaving their way around the tables and abundant potted plants in this self-styled garden café, the staff take orders using either Kenyan Sign Language, mimes or gestures. There are posters on display with an introduction to some basic sign language but, for example, the waiters may mime shivering to ask if someone wants a cold bottle of water, and the customer can confirm that with a thumbs up. Or, if an egg is ordered, then a fist gesture can be used to ask if the customer wants it hard-boiled or wiggling fingers to indicate soft-boiled.
Pallet Café, the home of deaf Kenyan coffee, could easily be mistaken for any other upmarket café, with people tapping away on their laptops between sipping a latte, or tucking into delicious plates of food.
Sharon Cherono is one of the more than 30 staff at Pallet Cafe who is deaf. Edward Kamande, who joined the staff soon after Pallet Cafe opened in 2019, started work as a waiter but is now the manager. The 26-year-old says the founder, businessman Feisal Hussein, “took a chance on me.”
Hussein, a former aid worker, wanted to open a place that would not only serve great dishes, like eggs Benedict and shakshuka (a spicy North African egg dish), but that would also back disabled people and get them into the workplace. “My vision was to support the deaf community,” he says of his business, deaf Kenyan coffee, which now has three branches. At this branch – in Lavington – more than 30 of the 40 staff are either hearing impaired or deaf.
Edward Kamande believes he is valued for what he can do. “There’s no discrimination in our company, there is freedom here,” he says. Three years ago, when he first joined the team, Mr. Kamande was shy and nervous, but now he has become an indispensable part of running the business. Mr. Kamande not only manages the staff but also oversees the finances and keeps an eye on supplies. He loves his job and is especially proud whenever customers commend his staff on their level of professionalism and service.
The vast majority of the staff had never had a job previously so the work has been life-changing for them.
At first, Mr. Hussein struggled to find people to hire but now people are always dropping off their CVs. In fact, the deaf Kenyan coffee café has been so successful that other businesses have asked if he can help them hire deaf workers.
According to Mr. Kamande, the biggest obstacle that deaf people face in Kenya is getting the chance to work in the first place. “There are so many deaf people who don’t have job opportunities,” he says.
It is thought there are at least 600,000 deaf people in the country and, even though discrimination on the grounds of disability is outlawed in the Kenyan constitution, they continue to face huge obstacles around access to healthcare, education and employment.
Kenyan Sign Language is not widely understood and there is little knowledge about it among public officials. There are also very few sign language interpreters in Kenya, and no nationally recognized system for registering or checking qualifications. Even though TV programs are supposed to incorporate sign language into their programs, few ever do.
Mr. Kamande told me about a recent experience a friend had in Nairobi when he was randomly stopped by police, and asked to show his ID card. “They threatened to take him to prison, but he could not answer them back.” Mr. Kamande managed to get to his friend, and explained to the police that the friend was deaf. Experiences like this have taught him that deaf people have to stand up for each other in an often hostile environment.
The deaf Kenyan coffee Pallet Cafe has not only given Mr. Kamande a safe space to have a thriving career, it was also where he fell in love. He met his wife Jacqueline, who is also deaf, while she was working there as a waiter. They now have an 11-month-old baby son called Godwin, who is not deaf. He proudly shows off photos of his son on his smartphone.
“Because of the café,” he says, “I moved to the next level of life.”
As I said, a story worth telling and an example for all of us, particularly in today’s world.