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Bungoma farmers smell the golden coffee after years of crop neglect

 Chesikaki farmers Cooperative society chairman Jackson Kurwa Chebusi and Chief Executive Officer Benard Kituko prune coffee in the facility's coffee farm in Mt Elgon, Bungoma County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

The lush green coffee trees welcome you to farms on the foot of Mount Elgon in Bungoma County.

Many farmers abandoned the cash crop following its dwindling fortunes ten years ago, but most of them have reverted to the crop with rekindled hopes of improved returns.

So far, over 200,000 farmers, including those who had uprooted the crop appear to have changed minds following extensive campaigns from the county since 2017. With at least 6,000 hectares of land under coffee, Bungoma Director of Agriculture Dr Fredrick Wotia says the campaigns are bearing fruit.

This can translate to 12.87 million coffee bushes (stems) from 10.82 million in 2017.

The money involved is also convincing to the farmers. In 2020 for example, farmers drawn from 52 cooperative societies in the county earned Sh1 billion from the cash crop, up from Sh980 million realised in 2017.

The Kenya National Farmers’ Federation (KENAFF) chairman in the county Godfrey Murunga said they embarked on empowering farmers by educating and sensitising them.

“Farmers have fallen prey to middlemen who exploit them by paying them as little as Sh20 per kilo of coffee cherries which are of high quality compared to coffee produced elsewhere, including Mount Kenya,” said Murunga. “We have more than 15 factories spread across Mount Elgon, Chwele-Kabuchai, and Kimilili sub-counties, and each has over 2,000 farmers affiliated with them.”

The county government has assisted the growers to form 304 cooperative societies. The county administration introduced Robusta coffee in the region with over 100 hectares of land in Bumula Sub County, a low-altitude area placed under the new plant variety.

“Soils in Bumula are good for growing Robusta coffee, and the county government gave us free seedlings last year, and we expect to make our first harvest in October this year,” said David Wanyama, a beneficiary of the project.

A single Robusta coffee tree is projected to yield between 10 to 15 kilos of coffee cherries.

Wanyama abandoned sugarcane farming and planted coffee on his ten-acre parcel because other coffee farmers had started reaping huge returns.

“Robusta coffee starts fruiting in the second year, and after six months, the crop is ready for harvesting. All my trees have fruits, I expect to get over 25,000 kgs (kilogrammes) of coffee cherries,” said Wanyama.

He is hopeful of getting 3,571.43 kgs of processed grade AA coffee from the anticipated 25,000 kgs of coffee cherries, which translates to Sh6.174 million depending on the market forces.

A 50-kg pack of Grade AA processed coffee is sold at Sh86,536, while Grade AB goes at Sh34, 181, and Grade C, could give a farmer Sh13,196.

“Many farmers have started to realise profits save for the liberal market that has exposed many of them to exploitation. We urge the government to consider availing subsidised fertiliser and seed varieties for the farmers to achieve their full potential in terms of production,” said Mr Murunga.

Julius Wesonga, from Khasoko ward in Bumula, has planted Arabica coffee on his four-acre piece of land, away from sugarcane.

“My coffee started fruiting in the second year, and I applied top dressing fertiliser to give it the required nutrients to mature,” he told The Standard.

 Chesikaki farmers Cooperative society farm manager Vincent Simiyu and Chief  Executive Officer Jackson Kurwa Chebusi operate pulping and coffee pregrading machine. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

Wesonga observed the 2.5 metres spacing between the coffee trees as recommended by experts to get maximum yields. Arabica coffee also grows well in Kanduyi, Kabuchai, Sirisia, Mt Elgon, and Tongaren constituencies, according to Murunga, who has been practising farming for over three decades.

Poor returns

Initially, coffee from Bungoma would be taken to Thika for processing, and this came with challenges, including cases where its quality was downgraded, resulting in poor returns.

Bungoma County has been busy sourcing for a ready international market for the farmers in Pakistan, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Patrick Khakula, a coffee expert, said that Grade AA at the New York and Nairobi Coffee Auction sold at $800 (Sh112,000) per 50-kilo bag, Grade AB at $316 (Sh44,240), and Grade C at $120 (Sh16,800).

The county can process between 25 to 30 million kilos of coffee cherries annually at Chesikaki and Musese coffee mills.

Both coffee mills procured at Sh28 million each have a combined milling capacity of grinding 2.4 tonnes per hour, translating to 57.6 tonnes per day. Bungoma County has since constructed weighbridges and warehouses within the coffee growing areas at Sh26 million for easy access and transportation.

“Market remains a major challenge, once we get a ready market, our farmers will earn more from coffee compared to their counterparts in Mount Kenya where a kilo of coffee cherries fetch close to Sh200,” said Murunga.

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