Beverline Kageha at her coffee farm at Lwandanyi village in Bungoma County on February 12, 2024. [Nathan Ochunge, Standard]

Coffee farming has long been the preserve of men even though women account for over 75 per cent of labour from the farm to processing.

But the story is slowly changing and more women are now leading from the front in the coffee value chain, in turn, growing the local economy and improving livelihoods.

Clemence Shambi, 70, from Lwandanyi village in Bungoma County, is one of the farmers who have broken the glass ceiling for her resilience in the sector for the last 12 years.

“For a long time, I wanted to become a successful coffee farmer, but the meager earnings women used to get pushed me away,” said Shambi.

It all started in June 2012 when she planted 387 stems of Robusta coffee on her one-acre piece of land.

Shambi enlisted the services of an extension officer who helped her source certified seedlings at Sh57 each, translating into a total investment of Sh22,059.

After two and a half years, the crop was ready for harvesting.

“Each coffee tree produced between seven and 10kg of coffee cherries (3,483 kilos)," she recalls.

Upon processing, she got 535.85kg of clean coffee and sold it at Sh255,600. 

 Beverline Kageha at her coffee farm with James Sali, a coffee expert at Lwandanyi village in Bungoma County. [Nathan Ochunge, Standard] 

This made her realise coffee farming could be profitable, and she increased the acreage under coffee to 10 acres.

She went on to recruit 50 other women, helping them get certified seeds. They each started by putting three acres of land under the crop.

They have since increased the acreage to a combined 160 acres with over 80,000 coffee trees.  

“I attended many seminars and discovered that when you produce coffee on a large scale, you will get good returns. I recruited more women so that we could have enough coffee beans to take to the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) where you are assured of good returns,” said Shambi.

In the 2021/22 coffee season, they harvested 720,000kg of coffee cherries (110,769.23 dried coffee beans), which translates into 2,216 bags (of 50 kg each) and took it to NCE.

Beverline Kageha, 29, has three acres of land under coffee, having ventured into the business in 2020.

She says the enterprise has been worthwhile.

“I requested my husband to give me the three acres of land for coffee farming. I have never regretted that decision as it has given the family financial freedom,” said Kageha.

She added: “We have put up a house and purchased an additional 10 acres of land on which we grow Robusta coffee trees, which we project to yield between 10 and 13kg of coffee cherries per tree.”

Everline Masika, 35, expects to harvest at least 9,000kg of coffee cherries (Sh850,150 ) in April from her 700 from her Robusta coffee trees.

“When you plant Robusta, you will never go wrong. In the second year, it starts fruiting and after six months, the crop is ready for harvesting. I was recruited by Ms Shambi and ventured into the business after seeing my fellow women reaping huge returns,” said Masika.

“My husband has been my support system in the venture. He always ensured I had the money for farm inputs and gave me the initial capital in 2019 to buy the 300 coffee seedlings that we started with.”

Stella Namalwa, 39, has 1,312 coffee trees in her three-acre piece of land and she says ‘harvesting will be in April this year’. She grows Arabica coffee.

According to Namalwa, the introduction of subsidised fertiliser and certified seedlings has helped maximise yields.

“I used to grow sugarcane but abandoned it for coffee four years ago. It was the best decision I ever made. As a family, the earnings sustain us throughout the year, including paying school fees for our children,” said Namalwa.

James Sali, a coffee expert, said the women are trained in better farming practices, which is giving them an edge over their male counterparts.

He said for one to get better yields, it is recommended to maintain a 2.5-metre spacing between the coffee trees.

Sali noted that Bungoma soils are good for both Arabica and Robusta coffee.

Shambi and the other women are among the over 230,000 coffee farmers in Bungoma with at least 6,300 hectares of land under coffee.

According to data from the county government, in 2020, for example, coffee farmers drawn from 52 cooperative societies in the county earned an accumulated Sh1 billion from the crop, up from Sh980 million in 2017.

The county now has more than 15 factories spread across Mount Elgon, Chwele-Kabuchai, and Kimilili sub-counties and two coffee processing mills - Chesikaki and Musese coffee mills.