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Coffee farmers soldier on despite troubles

Coffee farmers sort their coffee cherries at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology‘s factory on November 25, 2020. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

After decades of struggle to regain lost glory, coffee farmers are yet to benefit from their highly valued crop though it remains in high demand in international markets.

As they struggle with high production costs, their crop remains one of the top-rated and highly demanded commodities in the market, yet their highest average price tag has been Sh110 per kilogramme of cherry.

In Mt Kenya, one of the highest quality producers of the commodity Ndaruini Coffee Farmers Co-operative Society in Mathira, Nyeri County, has in the past five years been leading with the best price offered in the market but little to show for farmers who only produce a fraction of their farms’ potential.

Production

In the late 80s, Kenya was exporting above 140,000 metric tonnes of coffee, a figure that has dropped to less than 45,000 metric tonnes currently as demotivated farmers dropped coffee growing for alternative sectors such as dairy, macadamia, and horticulture.

James Mukuha of Ndaruini said improved payments had led to a marked increase in production, but not to the levels of the 80s and 90s.

“In the past five years, members of Ndaruini have received over Sh100 per kilogramme of cherry produced and our members are more motivated but we remain largely below our potential,” says Mukuha.



He said the production in part of the upper Mathira has been on the decline attributed to poor remuneration, as compared to factories in the lower part adding that in the crop year 2017/2018 they took home Sh110 per kilogramme.

In Murang’a County, affected by the low production as compared to the output of between the 80s and 90s, there is an outcry over low prices from poorly managed cooperative societies.

James Njuguna from Kandara said the pride of farmers in coffee has been eroded, with many switching to dairy and avocado farming.

Pale shadow of former selves

Murang’a, he said, used to produce the highest quantities but today factories are a pale shadow of their former selves, due to low production and self-centred management of primary co-operatives.



“Right now farmers are heading back to the farms thanks to better payment last year, which if not sustained will see them neglect their farms once again. It is a draining cycle,” said Njuguna.

Francis Ngone, the chairman of Murang’a Farmers Cooperative Union, said there were efforts to increase production and that this was possible as demonstrated in the past two years.

Ngone further said reforms in the coffee sector will play a major role and regain farmers’ confidence, after frustrations of several decades.

“All stakeholders must focus on the marketing of coffee. This has been the challenge facing the crucial sector,” said Ngone.

The union is among several outfits that were allowed by the Capital Markets Authority (CMA) to market coffee before they run into problems with the Agriculture ministry, which opposed CMA’s entry into the commodity trade.

A month ago, the Agriculture and Foods Authority (AFA), through the Coffee Directorate, started a programme to promote coffee consumption in the learning institutions after it partnered with the Inter-African Coffee Organisation based in Abidjan to open outlets at local universities. Egerton University and Kenyatta University are the first beneficiaries.

Head of AFA Enos Akuma says the sector is determined to pilot promotion of consumption in higher learning institutions that have a rich potential new clientele. Kenya only consumes three per cent of its coffee production placing its farmers at the mercy of unstable foreign markets.

The Coffee Directorate envisages that the promotion of reasonable local consumption would insulate local producers from shocks in the international market.

Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria on the other hand believes that coffee is an important crop that his administration is committed to nurturing for the interest of the small-scale growers.

Iria also noted that they are working towards rehabilitating coffee factories to reduce the losses incurred in the production chain.

Murang’a seeks to increase production and payment by 20 million kilos translating into Sh5billion in the next five years.

“Five years ago, the county government came up with a concept to distribute Subsidised manure and more than five million coffee seedlings to the farmers. The rise in production witnessed in Murang’a in the last two years followed the interventions made by the county government,” says the governor.

New Kenya Planters Co-operatives Union (NKPCU), which has been revived by the government taking over the assets of its collapsed precursor, is envisaged to play a crucial role in the coffee production chain.

It paid the best prices in the last season and according to chairman Henry Kinyua, things can only look good in the coming years.

NKPCU has also been appointed to run the government capitalised Sh3 billion Coffee Cherry Advance Scheme.

Although uptake of the credit remains low, the technocrats running KPCU believe a review of the lending conditions will attract more borrowers and lessen the pain in the coffee production cycle that requires ready capital.

The coffee sector is thus still populated by optimistic players and the cup might just smell as sweet as it did once.

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