Climate Change Threatens Coffee In Kenya, But Help Is On The Way

Every day is busy at the Gachatha Farmers’ Cooperative Society coffee factory.

This is a worker-owned facility located in Kenya’s central region, on the slopes of Africa’s second-highest mountain, Mount Kenya. By mid-morning, early-bird farmers are already trooping in carrying their bags of coffee berries. Before weighing, farmers pour the coffee on mats outside the weighing bay and select the berries. They then queue to get their coffee weighed and are given a slip with the day’s records. The coffee is poured to a funnel directing them to a pulper.

Gachatha Farmers’ Cooperative Society has over 1,500 members who deliver coffee every day to the factory; in just one week, the factory receives as much as 100,000 kilos of coffee to process. Gachatha is one of more than 100 coffee cooperative societies that sell their coffee through Coffee Management Services, a Kenyan company that markets coffee in Kenya and Rwanda. Last year, the Gachatha Farmers’ Cooperative Society managed to sell a total of 370,000 kilos and hopes to improve this to 700,000 kilos.

If you drink quality Kenyan coffee in Europe, or America, or Australia, chances are quite good you’ve tried coffees that have come through this system, even if you didn’t know it.

Gachatha Farmers’ Cooperative Society is one of the best performing cooperative societies in the country, where there are more than 500 such cooperative societies dedicated to coffee cultivation. Kenya is home to around 700,000 small-scale farmers—that’s more farmers than the entire urban population of Nashville, and roughly twice as many coffee farmers as the entire national population of Iceland. These 700,000 farmers work across some 2,132 coffee estates, with many of them centered around the foothills of Mt. Kenya.

While the coffee prices have improved for the farmers over the past few years, the effects of climate change have impacted the production and processing of coffee. The biggest place where this is felt might not be what you would expect: it’s in the water supply. Water in Kenya is becoming increasingly scarce, and food processing, like that of coffee, consumes relatively high volumes of water, according to studies. And water is integral to the production of coffee in Kenya, thanks to a term that you have perhaps heard before, one with deep roots presenting a complicated set of problems for the 700,000 people who make their living growing coffee here in Kenya, and the millions more who do it outside of Kenya’s borders. I’m referring to the “washed process.”

In many countries where Arabica coffee is grown, water is used in flotation, pulping, and in the transport of coffee and its by-products. This study states that with wet processing, Arabica coffee is of a higher quality and fetches higher prices on the world market compared to coffee prepared via dry or “natural process” methods. Even today there are coffee buyers in Europe, the United States and beyond who refuse to purchase such “natural” processed coffees, regardless of environmental impact. While wet processing can lead to a high-quality product, it also requires large volumes of water. In Kenya, wet processing of coffee is the preferred method, and therefore being a producer of 40,000 tons per year, the country’s coffee sector uses huge amounts of water.

Today in Kenya the single biggest expense for any factory in Kenya as it uses water in the process. Here at Gachatha, this issue is being confronted via the installation of eco-pulpers, which use less water and therefore reduce expenses and strain on water resources. The government is also planning to install eco-pulpers in all coffee factories in Kenya to reduce the amount used in pulping. This will help address some of the huge problems presented by water scarcity in Kenya, but it’s not a quick fix.

“Our water levels are not what they used to be,” says Kamau Kuria, the Managing Director of Coffee Management Services. Kuria tells me that coffee production levels in Kenya have fluctuated in recent years due to the direct impact of climate change and water scarcity. “If we were to continue with the old technology whereby, we are using 20,000 liters to process a ton of coffee the people downstream will be lacking water. I believe using new technologies in coffee processing is the way to help farmers mitigate against climatic effects,” he tells Sprudge.

Margaret Ngetha, a portfolio manager at Self-Help Africa agrees with Kuria that a shift towards a green economy and adoption of environmentally-friendly technologies is the way to go for smallholder farmers and companies. Self-Help Africa manages Agrifi Kenya Challenge Fund on behalf of the European Union and Slovak Aid.

With financing from the Agrifi Kenya Challenge Fund, Coffee Management Services embarked on a project to improve efficiency in three coffee factories owned by farmer cooperative societies in the Mount Kenya region by installing modern and efficient pulping machines. “Through the fund, we want to ensure that farmers get access to knowledge, access to quality inputs, and other relevant agricultural services that will help them increase their productivity. On the company side, the fund is keen to ensure that we improve the processes, strengthen their markets, strengthen their systems, strengthen their governance. It is a holistic thing,” said Ngetha.

Prior to the installation of the eco-pulper machines, Gachatha farmers spent a lot on water and labor due to the inefficiencies of older machines. Despite having a river running by the edge of its property, the factory is required to pay a fee to use the water in its factory. Kuria said that one needs to get a license and pay a fee to the local water resource management authority. He added that the purpose of the project was to introduce technological innovations to the farmers who have been stuck with the old technologies which uses a lot of water. “They use approximately 20 liters of water to a kilo of coffee. That is a lot,” he said.

Peter Mathenge the Chairman of Gachatha Farmers’ Cooperative Society said that the pulping machine that they had was installed in 1963. “We were using a lot of water in pulping and much of the water was wasted,” he said.

In addition to using a high amount of water, the older machine had a negative impact on quality. The machine nipped the coffee beans leading to damage on parchment, which calls for increased labor in selection after drying. All these increased expenses of the factory have a bearing on what the farmer earns after deductions. “Last year, for instance, we sold a total of 370,000 kilos of coffee and once we were paid, we retained 5% of the proceeds for the purposes of running the society,” he said.

Now, Gachatha Farmers’ Cooperative Society has installed an eco-pulper from JM Estrada, a Colombian manufacturer of coffee processing machinery. Jose Estrada, the Managing Director of JM Estrada said that the machine is a five-ton per hour pulper. “Not only is it environmentally friendly but also the quality is better because we keep the fragmentation at a minimum. So, it is better quality with less amount of water,” said Estrada.

With the installation of the modern eco-pulper which doesn’t nip the beans during pulping and which uses less water, Gachatha farmers will spend less and earn more. “The new machine is good as it recycles the water hence it uses less water, doesn’t nip the bean and produces good and clean coffee beans. This will translate to better prices for the farmers,” said Mathenge.

The three factories will realize up to 20% less running costs, avoid pollution of the river and better grading of coffee with the new technology. “Our markets expect better quality coffee, not only on how the bean looks like but also how it tastes,” Kuria said.

Apart from the installation of the modern pulping machines, Coffee Management Services is also training farmers in agronomic activities to help them increase productivity. “We do have agronomists who train farmers. We have demonstration farms whereby farmers are invited to be trained on what is needed in the coffee calendar. One of the places we make announcements is on Sundays during church where we send out announcements calling on farmers to show up for training. We do this because we know that we are dealing with a new generation of farmers who were not introduced to coffee farming in the 1960s and ’70s,” said Kuria.

Self-Help Africa hopes that with the installation of eco-pulpers in the three coffee factories, there will be more investments directed at improving the coffee sector. Ngetha said that if this works and the societies demonstrate better quality, increased pricing, and less consumption of water, then other cooperatives will be interested to adopt the same technology.

The government is also following suit in helping the entire coffee industry in Kenya move to eco-pulping. The ministry of agriculture announced in January 2021 that among its modernization activities for the coffee sector, it will be installing eco-pulping equipment. The government is able to do this thanks to a loan from the World Bank for the revitalization of the coffee sector.

If more coffee factories install eco-pulpers, it will have an impact on the quality and quantity of the coffee produced in the country. This past year, Kenya produced 36,000 metric tons of coffee and Kuria sees a possibility of better productivity with technological innovations in the coffee value chain. “This has a bearing on Rainforest Alliance Certification for these farmers because when farmers take care of the environment and other social concerns, they get a reward for these contributions by selling their produce at a premium,” said Kuria.

In this way, the entire story of modern coffee in Kenya is intertwined with conservation, adaptive technology, and the integration of green practices into the country’s coffee production chain. No single part works alone; the interconnection is integral, and the future of coffee in Kenya depends on it.

Anthony Langat is a freelance journalist based in Kenya whose work has been seen in Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the US News & World Report. Read more Anthony Langat on Sprudge.


Will Kenya Support Its Coffee Farmers?

On a misty November morning, not long ago, farmers in the western edge of the Kenyan Rift Valley were hard at work picking cherries. Beyond the hills, clouds hovered as rain threatened to pour. Daniel Masitsa heaved up the load to his shoulder and headed to Kapirgo Cooperative Society where he had his coffee cherries weighed. He was issued with a slip that showed he had weighed 20 kilos that day. More people brought in cherries fresh from the farm to the cooperative society until late afternoon. All were weighed and poured on a wooden bowl.

The cooperative society is located atop a hill in Kipkelion area and the two-acre piece of land it sits on stretches down to a rivulet. The weighing and pulping is done inside a simple corrugated iron sheet structure. Beyond the structure are coffee-drying tables made of mesh and lined with black nets. At noon, just before the rains, an employee wrapped yellow polythene sheets over the coffee to protect them. This was after packing up well-dried coffee beans in 90-kilo gunny sacks which were later hauled uphill for storage in the homestead of a member of the cooperative.

Philip Onyango, a coffee farmer and member of Kapirgo Cooperative Society, picking coffee cherries in Kipkelion, Kenya.

Kapirgo Cooperative Society is newly formed and brings together close to 100 smallholder farmers. Prior to its formation, the current members were members of other farmers’ cooperative societies. They felt that they were not getting value and decided to break away and form their own. They live in two neighboring villages and are all smallholder farmers who till less than five acers each. For close to one year, officials struggled to get the necessary permits to enable them sell their coffee. Finally, in November of 2019, a government official in charge of cooperatives gave them the go-ahead. Their intention was to start transporting the dry coffee beans that they had stored for the previous 10 months to millers in Kiambu, near Nairobi.

Poor coffee prices, delay in payment, lack of government support, and poor management of cooperatives are some of the challenges facing Kenya’s coffee farmers, who produce some of the most beautiful and delicious coffees on the planet. And that’s before we take COVID into account, a new variable that has impacted every step of coffee’s global supply chain. There has been a drop in annual production from a high of 67,406,795 kilos in 1998 to a low of 40,847,837 kilos in 2017, according to a 2017 report by Coffee Management Services. In May 2019, the US Department of Agriculture reported that the country’s production for 2019-2020 would drop to an all-time low of 650,000 bags. Now, the country risks getting suspended from the international coffee market due to the dismal production.

Emmanuel Masitsa, a coffee farmer and member of Kapirgo Cooperative Society, picking coffee cherries in Kipkelion, Kenya

Despite Kenyan coffee being ranked amongst the best quality coffee globally, farmers get paid very poorly for their produce. Many farmers I’ve spoken to here blame the poor prices for the fall in production. Though the international market determines the prices, the farmers often do not know what price their coffee will fetch in any given season. Early this year for instance, they were paid 35 shillings ($.35 USD) per kilo for coffee sold last year. “Different cooperative societies get different prices. The leading cooperative in this area was paid a price of 52 shillings ($.52 USD) per kilo,” said Edmond Bett, a farmer and member of Kapirgo Farmers’ Coffee Society.

This year, the yield has been poor and as one farmer puts it, it all boils down to poor prices. “The problem with this year’s yield is that fertilizer ought to have been applied in April, the same repeated in June with CAN and then NPK be applied and be sprayed with chemicals to help with fruiting. This would have allowed for fruiting but we didn’t have money and because of poor prices of 35 shillings a kilo, we didn’t have fertilizer and there was drought,” said Emmanuel Masitsa, a farmer and member of Kapirgo Farmers’ Cooperative Society.

In the two coffee harvesting seasons (here they run from March to July and from September to December), harvesting peaks for less than two months. After harvesting their coffee and weighing them, they have to wait for payment early next year, and many farmers find this wait to be too long.

Gone are the days when agricultural extension officers bestrode the farms imparting knowledge on crop management and how to achieve better yields. Masitsa recalls a time so long ago when officers from the government’s ministry of agriculture used to visit his father’s coffee farm. That was way back in the 1980’s when his father grew the crop. This has since disappeared and farmers all across the country have no one to turn to for advice on crop management. He feels that the government has failed him as a farmer as he believes there are things that the government can help with especially extension services and subsidizing of farm inputs. “If government supported us with farm inputs like fertilizer, herbicides and other things, our yields would improve and we would earn better from coffee,” he said.

A receipt for coffee cherries weighed at Kapirgo Cooperative Society.

Kieyah’s committee is charged with the implementation of the coffee regulations which, hopefully, will bring about reforms in the sub-sector and better fortunes to the farmers. The task force had found that coffee production, processing, and milling losses have been high and that cooperative societies were poorly managed and hence impacting negatively on the farmers’ earnings.

His task force recommended that in addition to the three billion Shilling cherry fund (some $28 mil USD) managed by the national treasury, subsidy programs be introduced to help cushion the farmer from high production costs. The subsidy programs would include fertilizers and other inputs needed by the farmers. They also recommended that to reign in on runaway processing costs, the cooperative societies be audited forensically and then rehabilitated and their debt issues be sorted out by the government. Milling losses would be arrested by vertical integration whereby cooperative societies would take up milling of their own coffee which Keiyah believed would reduce costs by up to 40%.

Kieyah’s team also found inherent insider trading at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange as part of the reasons for the low prices. His committee recommended that the Nairobi Coffee Exchange be regulated by the Capital Markets Authority so as to address insider trading issues. Milling losses, he said, also contribute to poor prices reaching the farmer. Some millers exaggerate the milling losses experienced when a kilo of cherry is milled. “Scientifically, we know the percentage that you lose on average when you mill a kilo of cherry and this should be standardized so that the farmer knows what to expect,” he said.

Choices will have to made next to ensure multi-generational farmers like Daniel Masitsa can continue their work. Kenyan coffee is among the finest in the world. But can the nation of Kenya ensure its continued excellence and growth in the years to come? Will Kenya support its coffee farmers?

Anthony Langat is a freelance journalist based in Kenya whose work has been seen in Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the US News & World Report. This is Anthony Langat’s first feature for Sprudge.

Top image: Joseph Kemei, a coffee farmer and member of Kapirgo Cooperative Society picking coffee cherries in Kipkelion, Kenya.