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Kenya’s troubled coffee sector

From the May 2017 issue.

The African nation’s government has commissioned a report into how to improve the industry, but whether its recommendations will be implemented remains to be seen.


e crop was recorded at 128,000 tonnes and its sale made coffee Kenya’s top foreign currency earner.

At that point, nearly a quarter of a century on from independence, Kenya’s blend of acidic soils, rainfall and sunlight, plus an army of willing smallholder farmers seemed certain to keep it among Africa’s major producers.

The country’s mild and fruity coffee also seemed well placed to meet the growing demand for higher quality coffee on the international market. Coffee that year delivered 40 per cent of the East African nation’s export earning.

But 30 years on and Kenya’s coffee sector is in such a parlous state that the government convened a special task force to unravel the mess. Production at 40,000 tonnes per year has dropped below the levels at independence in 1963. Yields from individual coffee bushes once estimated at 30 kilograms have dropped to three kilograms.

The number of hectares under cultivation has fallen drastically and coffee finds itself competing for space in the highlands around the capital, Nairobi, with a booming real estate sector.

The short-term gains from property development dwarf the earning prospects from agriculture to such an extent that bulldozers are consuming former coffee farms at record rates.

Compounding these pressures is a byzantine management system that has, over the decades, inserted any number of rent-seeking middlemen into the process between smallholders farming the coffee and dealers buying the finished product.

When the report of the national task force on coffee reforms landed on president Uhuru Kenyatta’s desk last May it summed up this situation thusly: “Currently, coffee… is facing unprecedented challenges which have drastically affected the production levels. Key among them: low earnings from coffee despite its premium quality, delayed coffee payments, mismanagement and inefficiencies in cooperatives, restrictive coffee laws, high cost of production and lack of direct access to the trading floor.”

While the report was bleak, it was hardly news in a country that has frequently flirted with grand efforts to revive the coffee sector.

Kenyan coffee is grown by two categories of farmers: the smallholders and the estates. Some 60 per cent of Kenyan coffee is grown by an estimated 700,000 smallholders and it is their declining fortune that underpins the crisis.

“In a nutshell, (the) majority of smallholder farmers with half an acre of coffee are making losses,” the taskforce found. “Especially when family labour is factored in the cost of production. This is manifested in abandonment and uprooting of coffee trees, and increased poverty in most coffee-dominated growing areas.”

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