Kenyans’ lack of a taste for coffee now boils over

A woman collecting coffee berries from a coffee plant.[Getty Images]

For world-class coffee tasters, one noisy slurp from a cup brewed with Kenya’s finest beans is enough to register the distinct flavours and aromas hitting the palate.

Phrases like a “bold layered profile,” a “well-balanced taste” or “bright acidity” might be thrown around by this elite class able to differentiate multiple varieties of coffee and even guess their origin.

But to a majority of Kenyans, who’ve lived with coffee trees for over a century now, the fuss of the quality of their bean remains just an overt romanticisation.

A coffee drinking culture hardly exists, with many Kenyans going for the lowest quality bean – instant coffee - or preferring tea.

About 95 per cent of production is exported with the measly domestic demand perhaps only supported by the floating middle class.  

Coffee, the world’s most traded commodity after oil, is one of the country’s top foreign exchange-earners.

In 2019, Kenyan coffee exports registered earnings worth Sh20.3 billion, with a kilo of the unroasted beans fetching Sh417, higher than tea, which fetched Sh239 per kilo.

Farmers might call it “black gold,” but of all Kenya’s cash crops, coffee has one of the darkest histories marked by bloodshed, enslavement and dispossession of land.

Its introduction to the country, as the Coffee Research Institute notes, was full of bloodshed, with thousands of Kenyans having been enslaved by the Arabs to work in their coffee plantations.

Origins of coffee are traced to Ethiopia then spread to the Arab world.

“In the first part of the 20th century, the interior was settled by British and European farmers who became rich by farming coffee on the backs of the Kenyan workers. By the 1930s, the farmers’ powers had become very strong,” says the Coffee Research Institute.

Bloodshed and slavery

Millions of natives, especially from the Central region where coffee is predominantly grown, were dispossessed of their land to pave way for the estates. The British would also ban natives from growing coffee.

“Despite all this bloodshed and slavery, Kenyan coffee has flourished and is among one of the finest cups in the world,” adds the Coffee Research Institute.

At Waihiga Farm in Kianjogu, Nyeri County, 83-year-old Cyrus Mathangani is perhaps one of the proudest coffee farmers in the country.

Coffee trees here were first planted in 1952 by his father, whom he helped to dig the holes as a 13-year-old boy.

Africans then could not plant more than 100 trees. “I participated in the digging of the huge holes, which we then filled up with manure. Such big holes are not necessary now,” he told Financial Standard recently.

The farm has since expanded to about six acres with 6,000 coffee trees after he took over from his father.

Over 90 per cent of his produce is exported. Mr Mathangani noted that since those early days, he’s always viewed coffee as a cash crop and keeps referring to it as “black gold.”

“All my life, I’ve farmed it and loved it, and since I retired from government in the early 1990s, I’ve done nothing else. Even now, I’m thinking that if it can fetch Sh60,000 per 50kg bag, this is the life,” he said.

Now, Mathangani is grooming his sons to take over. He said times have changed since colonial times when Africans were restricted on the number of trees they could grow on their farms, and if one produces quality beans, the returns are good.  

“In the market, all the best coffee is taken by international buyers and so we are left with the poor quality grades,” he said.

Those keen on their history lessons will remember the two types of coffee Arabica and Robusta. Kenya is known globally to have the finest quality of Arabica bean grown on the rich volcanic soils common in the highlands.

Real estate

Coffee trees can live up to 100 years and most of the coffee estates still have the SL28 variety, which was introduced by the settlers. Other varieties have since been developed locally, including the Ruiru 11 and the Batian.

After a short drive from Nairobi, Financial Standard arrives in Kiambu where most coffee estates in and around Kiambu County have disappeared in the last two decades, paving way for real estate. Fairview Coffee Estate is one of the few remaining ones and traces its history to the 1920s with the British settlers.

It has since changed hands and is now under the family of Leonard Kibinge, Kenya’s first resident ambassador to the United States.

Fairview Estate Director Michael Warui attributed the poor coffee drinking culture to the “colonial aftertaste.”

“It used to be illegal for Kenyans to own coffee farms because of that colonial history, where we were not able to be owners of farms like these,” said Mr Warui.

He noted that countries like Ethiopia consume four times Kenya’s capacity annually.

Fairview exports over 95 per cent of its coffee, according to Warui.

The farm has managed to bypass the middlemen at the coffee auction and sells directly to buyers, such as Starbucks, enabling it to make double the amount that the same would fetch at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. It has also gained certification for its coffee.

“We haven’t done retail yet, and the reason why we haven’t gone that direction is that Kenyans really aren’t coffee drinkers so your brand would remain on the shelf for some time, and you’d lose that quality,” said Warui.

The immersive experience, according to Warui, might perhaps also make Kenyans understand the rigorous work that makes quality coffee expensive.

A peek into the supermarket shelves shows that a 500g bag of the AA or AB bean retails at about Sh1,000.

Many Kenyans have had to contend with instant coffee sachets, which sell at Sh5 each.

It is of the poor Robusta bean. The sachets and Kahawa No 1, which older Kenyans may remember, are the lowest grades of the coffee (referred to as mbuni).

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