By WAINAINA NDUNG’U
KENYA: What started as a difference in opinion among coffee stakeholders in the agricultural rich Nyeri County over milling and marketing of the produce has slowly snowballed into a full-blown row.
The squabble is now pitting Governor Nderitu Gachagua against some members of the co-operative societies who are not keen to adopt the strategy taken by the county government.
Gachagua claims he has found markets for local coffee in the US and China, but farmers are apprehensive whether his marketing model will deliver dividends or bring trouble.
Gachagua campaigned on a platform of produce value addition and shortly after he was elected, he appointed a taskforce to help him draw a strategy to approach the issue.
Part of the recommendations of the taskforce that called for the branding of local coffee produce to market it as a finished product has motivated the formation of the Mt Kenya Coffee Development Company Limited.
This is the company which is to coordinate the milling and marketing of Nyeri coffee, with the milling happening at the Sagana mills of the Kenya Planters Co-operative Union.
In a visit to the mill with representative of farmers on Wednesday, Gachagua was elated about the milling contract saying it would ensure that Nyeri coffee has traceability and farmers do not fall victim to swapping of premium quality beans during the milling and marketing process.
According to Gachagua, it is precedent setting that the KPCU mills will allow them to send a representative to monitor the milling process.
The county government envisages a situation where once the coffee is milled, they can approach buyers and negotiate to supply either milled or roasted coffee at a premium price.
County Secretary for Agriculture Shadrack Mubea said earlier in the week that the governor was keen to explore potential markets, especially in non-traditional markets such as America and China.
Wilson Karime, the chairman of the Gititu Coffee Factory, which is under the four factory Aguthi Coffee Farmers Society, urged Nyeri farmers to give the governor a chance to prove his worth.
“The past model has favoured middlemen and buyers,” said Karime. “I see no harm in trying a new set if it finally benefits farmers.”
Mubea claims that Nyeri alone produces 20 per cent of Kenya’s export crop and that this will give the county government an edge to negotiate premium prices.
But it is not a smooth sailing as the county government would have wished.
Next Wednesday, its lawyers will be making an appearance at the Nyeri High Court to argue against a group of 13 primary co-operative societies that are seeking to block it from interfering in coffee milling and marketing.
The 13 are arguing that by the time the county government issued a circular instructing them to mill at KPCU Sagana, they already had standing contracts with other millers which they can only forsake at the risk of being sued.
On Wednesday, Mubea got into an exchange with Karatina’s Central Kenya Coffee Millers when he threatened to close the factory over environmental and licencicing requirements. Notably, the private miller is aligned to Dormans – one of Kenya’s principal coffee buyers.
Almost all management committees of co-operative societies we talked to were unanimous that the county government was taking a major risk by seeking to bypass them to access farmer’s produce.
“We are as much the custodian’s of the farmer’s interests as the county government is. This partnership should only have been based on individual society to county government and not a blanket basis as they are seeking to bulldoze,” said one CFS chairman.
When asked what the county government would eventually do about the co-operative structure, Mubea said the status quo would remain, but that a sort of countywide coffee farmers roll would be established giving some sort of autonomy to the primary producer.
But the proposal is a powder keg with the potential of highly explosive disagreement which could even lead to physical confrontations.
The county government is counting on supportive farmers to bulldoze the committees. But the same farmers’ solidarity is what the management committees are counting on. Interviews with warying committee members show they envisage a situation where farmers will not stomach interference from politicians in favour of the time tested system they are used to.
Much of what happens next will depend on what the High Court will eventually rule in the application in court. In the meantime, the signs of rising tension are not very encouraging.
Mubea said they have invested heavily on intelligence to make sure that the current season crop is not moved to competing millers.
There are standoffs in some societies such as Rumukia (Mukurwe-ini) which has eight primary factories and Kiandu factory which splintered from seven-factory Mutheka CFS two years ago.
At Kiandu, a noisy pro-county government splinter group is impatient about milling of their produce and has thrice tried to hold a meeting to oust the incumbents.
Factory chairman Macharia Muhuni — a political ally of the governor — said his society, which is among the 13 which have gone to court, will stay put.
“We already have an annual marketing and milling contract which we signed in September 2013. Anybody telling farmers they can annul this is just trying to sow seeds of discord,” said Muhuni before taking a swipe at his political ally. “He is trying to control the sector without concrete proposals.”
But Karime of Gititu CFS said his factory was seeking a cordial exit from a contract they had signed with a marketing agent and has the approval of the county government.