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Mt Kenya farmers hang on hope in Gachagua's fight against cartels

 Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua when he hosted Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) board of directors led by Chairman David Muni Ichoho at his Harambee House Annex offices on January 16, 2023. [DPCS]

Despite Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua's vows to eliminate cartels in the coffee, tea and sub-sectors, there is little that has come of his efforts to rein in rogue profiteers eating into farmers' money.

Through an executive order issued by President William Ruto on January 9, Gachagua was tasked to oversee the implementation of the coffee sub-sector reforms.

Although the DP has vowed to fight cartels and return money into farmer's pockets, this year's coffee earnings dropped by 50 per cent compared to the last three years when a kilo fetched as much as Sh120.

Most of factories have paid their farmers at a rate of between Sh50 and Sh90 per kilogramme with players in the sector citing harsh climatic conditions and poor market prices overseas.

While coffee is grown nationally, Mt Kenya region is one of the regions that produce the highest yields hence the reason why Gachagua was tasked to lead in streamlining the sector despite Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi also from the region.

During the campaigns, Ruto and his team promised the region tat they would was introducing a stabilisation fund, the Guaranteed Minimum Returns (GRM), to cushion them from poor prices.

Peter Kariuki Kihara, a coffee farmer in Kieni, Mathioya constituency in Murang'a County, challenged the government to walk the talk since farmers had committed too much to coffee farming following good returns in the last three years.

"We only hear Gachagua saying he is fighting cartels and accusing the former administration of having conflict of interest in the sector hence poor returns to farmers but alas. Under his watch, coffee earnings are declining" Kihara who has 3500 coffee bushes said.

Gachagua is expected to lead a coffee summit between June 8 to 10 in Meru bringing together stakeholders in the coffee sector on how to streamline the sector, come up with legislation that will favour farmers.

Value chains

However, a dispatch released by Cabinet on April 27 shows that when the government committed Sh267.7 billion to map the production process in nine agricultural value chains, coffee was left out, raising questions on the government commitment in in revitalisation of the sector.

Among the value chains were cotton to textile and apparel chain, edible oil crop production, dairy, leather, rice, tea, blue economy, minerals and tree planting and construction and building materials.

Githunguri MP Gathoni Wa muchomba said she was aware of the dispatch letter and was concerned but said she was following up with the relevant offices to ensure that coffee had been captured in the budget.

"It is definitely an issue of concern but we are following the matter behind the curtains," she said.

On the dairy sub-sector, Gachagua had given himself a deadline of 90 days to get rid of cartels that have dominated the sector, buying raw milk at very low prices but retailing the processed products expensively.

The deadline lapsed on May 23 but there is no progress yet other than abrasively accusing former President Uhuru Kenyatta of being a monopolistic player in the sub-sector.

Julius Kamau, the chairperson of Murang'a Dairy Farmers Association, said by the time the Kenya Kwanza administration took over, they would have addressed the high cost of feeds and introduced minimum guaranteed returns to cushion farmers.

"It is high time the government deal issues that affect farmers and act, so that farmers can get better returns because we elected this government on the premise that we shall enjoy the fruits of our labour," Kamau said.

On tea, Gachagua in January had exuded confidence that he would triumph in fight against cartels.

"It has not been possible to fight cartels in tea, coffee and dairy sub sector because those who served in previous governments have been players in the sector."

The Deputy President's Head of Communication Services Njeri Rugene said a lot has been happening behind the scenes.

"The Deputy President has been meeting stakeholders in all the three sub sectors and this is what will be climaxed on June 8 to 10 next month. From then on, things will never be the same and there will be no turning back," she told The Standard.

She said Gachagua has met the coffee parliamentary caucus, ministry of Agriculture and State agencies to discuss and remove barriers to good earnings.

"He has also engaged experts from Ethiopia for good practices on running farmer centered cooperatives and engaged one of the largest coffee marketers in Nebraska for insights on the customer demands," she said.

The forums, she said, will culminate in the Meru meeting where more information will be collected and condensed into outcomes for sustainable legal, structural, and operational reforms.

But politicians feel Gachagua should reevaluate his assignments as most of them may end up not being unfulfilled, a move that may backfire on him politically in the near future.

Convoluted woes

"He needs to tread carefully especially on coffee issues, if the industry will not be aligned the CS in charge will not feel the heat but it is him who will be held into account. This may have far reaching consequences especially if it affects his relationship with the President ahead of 2027," an MP who requested anonymity told The Standard.

The legislator said the woes surrounding the coffee sector are convoluted given that external and natural factors contribute to meagre earnings.

Mukurweini MP John Kaguchia said the formation of the coffee and tea caucus was among the first steps to lay the ground for major success.

"Both houses will play an integral role in making the fight against the cartel a success and since there is political good will from the Executive farmers will enjoy their sweat under Ruto's administration," said the MP.

Senate's Agriculture Committee chairman Kamau Murango said the coffee and tea bills will be taken for public participation.

The Tea Bill will allow farmers to sell their produce directly to the market and not necessarily through the Mombasa tea auction.

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