Barely two kilometres away from Chepkube Market, intense activity along the Kenya-Uganda border is discernible.
Today, Chepkube is a nondescript backwater town. However, it evokes memories of the coffee smuggling business in the mid-1970s through to the late 1980s.
The older generation of Kenyans could easily recall the booming 'black gold’ business that partly contributed to the death of coffee farming, especially in Central Kenya.
A stout, 10-foot wooden bridge over River Lwakhakha links the Kenyan side of Chepkube to Uganda.
By all indications, it is a smugglers' route. There are no police officers on the Kenyan side, but a few can be seen on the Ugandan side.
As we watched, heavily laden motorcycle riders approached the wooden bridge carefully.
Two 20-litre jerrycans of cooking oil hanging on either side of the carrier gave the balance of the motorcycles.
The pillions were stacked several feet high with layers of cartons bearing assorted goods.
"Getting onto the bridge from either side is tricky for motorcyclists. Any motorcycle that ventures across the bridge with any load must be pushed. This is done at a fee of Sh30," according to Samuel Misiko, a resident.
Even as he spoke, two young men detached themselves from a group of people sitting by the bridge and rushed to help a rider get onto the bridge from the Kenyan side.
“Some of these young men are used to smuggle contraband while some wash motorcycles in the river. The women sell tea, porridge, and cooked beans,” said another resident Joel Kibasa
Not so far from the busy bridge, we meet 74-year-old Paulina Mukoya Wepukhulu. She pauses her work to look at us as we approach her, a smile hovering on her lips. We introduce ourselves and the purpose of our visit, and she is willing to talk.
"I actively took part in the coffee business in 1977. We used to buy coffee beans from Uganda at Sh100 per debe (the equivalent of eight 2kg tins). We would then pack the coffee in gunny bags that accommodated two debes each and sold it at Sh300. Every transaction returned a profit of Sh100. It was good business then and it attracted people from as far as Somalia,” Wepukhulu said.
According to her, there was a ready market and this forced them to travel deep into Uganda to buy the coffee.
“President Idi Amin Dada of Uganda actually encouraged the trade but it died off after he was toppled” Wepukhulu reminisced.
She went on to say that the large-scale coffee smuggling business might have died for some years, but coffee smuggling still goes on along the Lwakhakha border.
Coffee is grown in Cheptais, Toroso, Chwele and adjoining areas.
“People still smuggle coffee across the border and they do it both during the day and at night. Besides, they also smuggle a lot of other things that are not easily available in Uganda,” Wepukhulu said.
“My parents who are now deceased partook of the black gold business and were able to see us through school,” Simpson Musamali, a teacher at a local primary school, told The Standard.
He added: “It was good business that paid handsomely. However, the competition was so stiff. At some point, it led to the tension that resulted in riots and houses being burnt in Chepkube in revenge attacks. President Daniel Arap Moi had to send the General Service Unit to restore order. The business is still alive today, although not on the same scale as in the 1970s. People prefer selling coffee to Ugandans because the payment is immediate unlike when sold to local Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Saccos.”
Officials of Chepkube Farmers Cooperative Society Limited acknowledge they have been adversely affected by the illegal coffee trade.
“We don’t get as much coffee as we should, and besides the business aspect, it forces us to operate with very thin staff,” Richard Ndiwa, the deputy CEO of the cooperative society said.
He added: “The coffee season here lies between April and December, but it peaks in August. In that period, we collect coffee from farmers, dry it and send it to the Coffee Mills Society in Eldoret where it is ground."
Mr Ndiwa said the society's main challenge is that farmers are not paid on delivery which tends to discourage them.
"It takes months before we pay farmer, normally starting in January. Even then, we pay in installments. Well, we understand the farmers’ frustrations that make them prefer selling their coffee to Uganda and middlemen. They are human and they have needs to attend to".
But while farmers prefer instant payment, it does not help them the way lump-sum payment would.
"Besides, at the moment, middlemen pay Sh150 for a 2kg tin. If the same farmer sold the coffee to us, he is likely to get Sh250. Cumulatively, this would make a handsome profit. Their short-term view is robbing our farmers,” Marvin Mabandi, a recorder at Chepkube Farmers Co-operative Society Limited, said.
“The illegal trade is not just confined to coffee. Cooking oil, sugar, wheat, wheat flour, paraffin, and salt are also smuggled into Uganda. That is done mostly using the bodaboda riders you see crossing the bridge every five minutes or so,” Musamali said.
The local leadership is aware of the smuggling business but there is little they can do to stop it without strict border controls.
A village elder, Nelson Waraba, said: “There is free movement of goods across the border. Without the Kenya Revenue Authority officers here to enforce rules, all I can do with the help of police officers is ensure there is security in this area and that things such as guns and bullets are not brought into the country through my jurisdiction”.