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Taita Taveta: Region where coffee was first grown struggles to regain glory

Coffee farmer Jonam Mugho at his farm in Taita Hills, Taita Taveta County. He is one of the few residents still growing the crop. [Benson Mnyamwezi, Standard]

Taita Taveta County is said to be the first place where coffee was planted in Kenya during the colonial administration due to its unique biodiversity. This led researchers to describe it as a “wild variety of coffee” in one of the indigenous forests.

“Taita Hills was indeed the first place where the Europeans first introduced coffee in Kenya. It is sad that the cash crop is no longer flourishing here despite the region having played the historic role on pilot basis,” says Jonam Mugho, one of the few successful coffee farmers in the area.

The early Christian missionaries planted the first seedlings at Bura and Wundanyi in Taita Hills. Mr Mugho recalls how in 1948, a Mr Drulley, a settler, conducted further trials around the site where the former county headquarters stands in Wundanyi town.

The former chairman of the Taita Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Society says during the State of Emergency in 1952, Drulley was hounded out of the area by residents who were tired of being exploited and dispossessed of their land.

“The settlers even had the cheek to pay locals with blankets for each parcel of land they forced them to surrender for coffee production,” says Mr Mugho.

The few educated Africans who were finally allowed to grow the crop were restricted to 100 trees.

Mr Mugho also served for four years as a director in the Coffee Board of Kenya and also worked with the Kenya Coffee Research for eight years.

In 1988, he was honoured by the late President Daniel Moi as the best small-scale coffee farmer in the country.

Apart from Wundanyi, other areas where coffee grew include Mwatate, Wongonyi and Sagalla.

In the first decade of the country’s independence, Taita Taveta recorded its highest harvest of 120 tons from 4,000 acres of land.

But the situation is now different. Over the years, acreage under the crop has declined.

Price fluctuations led to neglect of the crop, with farmers relying on other sources of income such as horticulture and dairy cattle, which today constitute the mainstay of the local economy.  

“The decline in the sub sector jeopardized the livelihood of local small holder farmers who entirely depended on the crop,” he says.

Mr Mugho recalls that in the good old days, local farmers earned good income that transformed their lives. Taita Taveta had very low incidence of coffee diseases and produced some of the finest coffees since 1964.

Ms Phides Wakesho of Mgange Location says the family uprooted more than 100 coffee trees “because of poor prices and returns. We have replaced coffee with maize, beans, macadamia, avocado plants, irish potatoes and French beans among other crops that fetch good money.”

But the Agriculture Chief Officer Boniface Mwavula says county government and the Coffee Research Foundation have been distributing seedlings to farmers to revive the sub-sector.

Mr Mwavula says the current coffee acreage is 29.9, with an annual yield of 14.9 tons. Active members of the Taita Taveta Farmers’ Cooperative Society are only 170. The crop is doing well in Wundanyi, Mgange, Werugha, Chawia and Mrughua, where Ruiru 11, Batian, SL 28 and SL 34 are the main varieties.

“The farmers lack market due to low volumes. We will help farmers boost coffee production and attain sustained yields with steady returns,” says Mr Mwavula.