Kenya Help a Small Coffee Farmer?

Kenya is such a varied coffee origin it is not hard to find something you like from the diverse regions here.

I’m here before the main harvest but some early crop coffees are cupping very well. Bad news is that the weather hasn’t been cooperating as harvest draws near.

The focus on Nyeri county coffees has broadened among specialty coffee buyers as the politics of the area interfered with the trade. We still buy Nyeri for sure but have also entered a buying relationship with some pretty spectacular coffees from Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Muranga and elsewhere.

Rather than rehash the specifics, I’ll focus on the discoveries of quality coffee from other regions than Nyeri. The benefit here is that farmers from all over have the opportunity to get prices for their coffee that they couldn’t expect previously, and exporters who want to separate them into microlots rather than bulk them all by region.

Coffee cherry getting ripe but not quite there.
Coffee cherry getting ripe but not quite there. Ruiru 11 Variety

As I said, I’m writing this from Kenya after visiting coops and small farms for several days. It’s generally too early to cup main crop coffee; I’ll return in the first months of 2019 for a cupping-focused trip. I’ll also be back in December to see the core part of the main harvest.

But this trip as the very first pickings are occurring is very informative. I can see the farmers who are prepared, who have taken good care of their farms, and others who have let things slide. It helps me to focus where to spend my time and energy for the later trips, and where I might find quality.

A bright spot is some farms we bought from last year in Kiambu. This county is known for its huge estate farms. I wasn’t even aware of how many small farms (shambas) there are in Kiambu until our exporter partner enlightened me by making a series of farm visits a couple years ago.

Since then I have visited farms located at altitudes I didn’t think were found outside of Nyeri, and farms with old SL varieties.

Weather has been odd in Kenya as the main harvest approaches. A period of drought stressed the trees and flowering looked quite good. A degree of stress like this, if not too severe, is a good botanical trigger for flowering. And heavy flowering means good fruit set and lotsa coffee.

But then came unseasonable rains which brought on intense roya and berry disease. If farmers didn’t react quick they lost out. One oddity is also a lot of “ears” on the drying beds. These are formed by enmeshed seeds, one inside the other. They are large beans but hard to roast and it means less AA coffee. It’s not good news for farmers.

Ears are enmeshed coffee seeds, one wrapped around the other.
“Ears” are enmeshed coffee seeds, one wrapped around the other. They are not necessarily taste defects but are hard to roast well.

We buy coffee in varied ways from Kenya. We always seek continuity with farms and coops. We want to buy the same coffees and maintain a relationship… the issues are that farmers here tend to flip flop a bit. They may have a good agent for their coffee and a good buyer, but the grass is always greener somewhere else.

I respect that, and it generally has little to do with the end buyer, like ourselves. It has to do with the competition by the marketing agents to secure coffee.

There is intense competition to get farmers into contracts to deliver coffee to a particular mill and particular exporter. I would love to say it’s all fair competition and that it benefits the farmer. It’s more complicated than that though.

In fact, I can have the marketing system explained to me and still not fully grasp the reality on the ground. Suffice it to say that coffee is very political here, from the cooperative boards that are supposed to serve farmers, to the county offices, controlling the movement of coffee.

I mean that literally, to put coffee on a truck and take it anywhere you need a permit before it is loaded and on the road. So the control exercised by local government is extreme. When Nyeri County wanted to take control of all the coops in the region, they simply stopped issuing transit permits to move the coffee.

Kahawa Bora Dry Mill, Ruiru
Samples of separated grades of coffee produced from the same outturn ( the same incoming lot). This is Mbuni, natural coffee.

In election years, there can be larger disruptions to the coffee trade. It might be from politicians catering to the large number of the general voting population who farm coffee or have some other hand in the coffee pot. Or it might be from unrelated political activities that disrupt the workflow. A favorite theme is to demonize companies seen as foreign or multinational in coffee, even if some of the Kenyan-owned players are known to be the most corrupt.

The trade definitely needs strong rules to protect farmers, to protect everyone. In fact farmers in Kenya get a large percentage of the export price, when compared to other countries. And when their coffee sells at a premium as top Kenyas do, a farmer can do quite well. The issue affecting them is the high cost to farm here, and the lack of support from the coffee organizations.

An average Kenyan farmer must use costly inputs if they hope to have a good crop, and they must react quickly when weather is against them. In particular, heavy rains can damage the trees directly or bring about the onset of CLR, Coffee Leaf Rust fungus, or other fungus like Anthracnose, die back, Ojo de Gallo, etc. Insects like CBB, Coffee Berry Borer, or stem borers can attack the fruit or tree. Scale transferred by ants saps the tree and brings molds onto the leafs too. Organic or other fertilizer is needed to keep trees productive here. Grafting onto old root systems is effective in Kenya but requires expertise.

This is not the place for the absentee or casual farmer. It takes constant work, and monitoring the farm and responding as things happen. Moreover, it takes expertise, and good advice. A management service will provide this for the large estates, but who helps the small farmers? Who helps the coop farmers manage their trees? It should be the Coop itself, it should be Coffee Research Foundation, the governmental agency.

But all I see is the assistance from the marketing agents via their field staff. And that is inconsistent if farmers are changing the people they work with for marketing and export. There is a void when it comes to technical assistance to the small farmer on their shamba here, and it means lower yields, less money for them, and makes coffee farming unsustainable economically.

So when I hear of people who want to “help farmers” with things like direct marketing of their roasted coffee, or a new GIS appellation map, or more certifications, or some sort of app or other tech, I really wonder who these “helpers” are and what they know about coffee. What I am talking about are obvious and direct issues that require a lot of work, a lot of staff, a lot of training, and no easy solutions like an app or a token staff of ex-pats in Nairobi.

Sadly I don’t really know who can take this on though, because the government organization tasked with coffee farmer support and assistance is basically a no-show on the job.

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