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.