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.