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The proposed coffee bill exposes the leadership bankruptcy of Kenya's parliament

By Francis Karugu | August 15th 2018
Othaya Coffee farmers society Chairman Peter Githua Nderitu (left) contributes during the Nyeri Coffee bill public participation in Othaya. [Mose Sammy/Standard]

The legislative output from our National Assembly is worryingly sub-standard. Apart from being rendered functionally impotent by the Executive, the widespread ignorance of the subject matters that MPs legislate on is conspicuous.

Take, for instance, the bill by Moses Kuria that proposes Kenyan coffee cannot be exported in raw form and should only be sold cross-border after it has been roasted, milled, packed and branded.

This is an example of the sub-standard quality of legislation coming from the National Assembly, which appears to have become a fiefdom of ignorance and utter baloney.

This bill ignores several facts of economic reality. Kenyans should be warned about such legislation which, if enacted, will further push Kenya's poverty index, especially for those in the coffee-growing areas of Gatundu South and the larger Kiambu County, where Kuria comes from.

But as I have argued before, it is in the interests of politicians to keep people poor because politics is a tool used to control the poor.

The policy intervention that will put more money in the pockets of coffee farmers is the one that solves the systemic constraints in the sector, much of which have to do with productivity and the supply aspect from the farmers' perspective.

We should be addressing accessibility and availability of farm inputs and implements that will restore volume and quality productivity to improve the competitiveness of Kenyan coffee in the international markets.

Market actors

The root cause is in the agronomy practices of smallholder coffee farmers, not the cosmetic issues of demand that make up the foundation of the bill. The question coffee sector actors should ask Kuria is why existing processors are not able to access international markets, however small the market shares may be.

The few coffee processors based in Kenya roast coffee primarily for the domestic market, with very little focus on the export market.

This is interesting because domestic coffee consumption in Kenya has remained low - at about three per cent of the total production - according to a 2017 report by USAid.

The low consumption is attributed to the predominant tea-drinking culture and non-affordability of coffee due to low purchasing power for the majority of the population.

In essence, local processors have the capacity to absorb less than three per cent of local production.

This means that if a bill that makes the sale of raw coffee illegal is enacted, coffee beans will be rotting in stores at the co-operative level, and the local roasters will have an over-supply, effectively killing farm gate prices for coffee farmers.

These very simple numbers are public knowledge, but it seems our Members of Parliament cannot make the right conclusions to inform quality legislation. Kuria should also know that his bill will only cure a symptom, not the root cause.

Specialty markets

Kenya produces less than one per cent of the world’s coffee, and her coffee is mostly demanded for blending and specialty markets. This means that if the coffee is processed locally, even the one per cent market share will disappear overnight, leaving farmers and co-operatives with massive dead stocks.

If there is a serious desire to put more money in the farmers' pockets, let policy makers address productivity in volumes and quality, which have been dwindling over the years with the knowledge of politicians full of bubble gum rhetoric as demonstrated by Kuria’s bill.

The bill resembles the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand in the face of danger. Where, for instance, were Kiambu politicians when rich agricultural land was being cannibalised by real estate?

Both pedestrian and expert observation can attest that fertile land in the county has fast been gobbled up by mega housing projects, and huge coffee estates have now been replaced by apartment blocks.

It will surprise many that the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Agriculture has only one Kiambu MP, whose constituency is virtually a real estate jungle where lush green coffee fields were once the pride of the nation. A quick glance at the Hansard reveals that MPs from Kiambu rarely contribute during House debates, mostly because they are absentee representatives.

Their claim to fame is online presence and national political razzmatazz. Instead of buoying the county’s most important sector of the economy, their stock in trade is to rouse ethnic emotions and remind the electorate how much the mighty Kiambu vote juggernaut is to be held in reverence.

This bill is a good indicator of the leadership vacuum in Kiambu.

Mr Karugu is a strategy and analytics consultant based in Nairobi; [email protected]

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