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Kenya’s coffee farming resurgence

From the March 2011 issue.

Record high auction prices in Kenya are driving many farmers back to coffee, and setting the path to developing a sustainable industry.

Story by Daniel Howden

The Tuesday ritual began on 18 January just as it has every other week at the Nairobi coffee exchange. The same 30 or so buyers were crammed into their wooden desks in the steep rows that give the auction room the appearance of an old school lecture hall. The prices flickered as usual across the LED board behind the auctioneers, their arrival and departure marked by a sharp ping.

Then something unusual began to happen. When the bidding started on lots of the highest grade coffee it refused to stop. When it finally did a single 50 kilogram bag had been sold for $1,022 – the highest price of its kind fetched anywhere in the world.

“It was a big surprise, even after seeing the upsurge in global prices,” admits Daniel Mbithi, an official at the Kenya Coffee Producers and Traders Association. “It was something I had never seen.”

Mbithi, who has worked the weekly auction that is the centrepiece of the Kenyan coffee industry for long enough to remember the brief boom in the late 1990s, said that the atmosphere in the auditorium was one of “mild shock”.

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