Coffee quality, not brokers determine how much money farmers get

Coffee tree on a farm. [File, Standard]

Kenyan coffee farmers have faced challenges since the late 1980s. They have received promises from the time the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) was automated to deal with price fixing cartels coffee through to when marketing was liberalised to enable them sell their coffee.

Every time changes are proposed, there has always been renewed hope that farmers will earn a higher and more justifiable pay. Most of the changes are good but the implementation has been poor.

An example is when the coffee direct sales (alternatively known as the second window) was established. The aim was to have farmers sell their own coffee overseas with little help from the marketing agents and the Coffee Board of Kenya. The farmer was to link up with coffee importers and roasters from coffee drinking countries, develop trading relationships and sell directly to the parties. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

Apart from a few cooperatives that directly sold their coffee, all the others purporting to sell directly were actually not doing it. It is the marketing agents who linked with buyers and got the farmers on board. The farmer still connected to the buyers through the marketing agents, but not directly. I remember a capacity building programme run by the International Finance Corporation for the newly licensed unions, but still direct selling didn’t happen as expected.

The current discussion on coffee is around the regulations of 2019. This has introduced brokers and the agents. It has also seen almost all the farmers’ owned unions get brokerage licence. A broker is the party licenced by the Capital Markets Authority to sell coffee through the central auction at Wakulima House in Nairobi.

The farmers’ hope is again revived – let’s forget the transitional challenges we have experienced this year when the auction was suspended. It resumed on August 15, an event presided over by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua. Change comes with teething problems anyway.

I have attended several forums where the coffee millers and brokers sell themselves to potential farmer clients to be given the business of milling and brokering. One common demand that they get from farmers is how much they will pay them (the farmers) in shillings per kilogramme. Let the farmer know that the miller has no genuine answer to this question. His input to the final price to the farmer is ZERO.

Milling is simply dehusking the bean, polishing it, grading and bagging. When the machines are right and the milling personnel know what they are doing, there is no difference milling your coffee in any mill in Kenya, Rwanda, Indonesia, Peru or any other place. Let the miller just explain how good his mill is to the task, his mill capacity and also sign some integrity commitment in handling the coffee (especially how to avoid theft of coffee and how the coffee is bulked without compromising quality).

The brokers are also asked to give the rate per kilogramme of coffee cherry delivered by farmers. My advice is, don’t pose this question to the broker. If pushed, s/he will give you a rate which will be a product of guesswork. The farmer needs to know that the price s/he gets is mainly dependent on the quality of the coffee lot. Projects like the ARABIKA supported by the Italian Agency for Development are keen to support farmers to ensure coffee quality is improved in seven counties. Such should be replicated in all coffee producing counties.

Coffee to be sold in an auction is usually published in catalogues. The way grades appear in the catalogue follow the rule where the poorer quality grades appear before the premium grades. Within the same grade, the poor classes appear before the high-quality ones. The price per lot generally increases as one moves from the poor coffee lots towards the premium ones. For example if you have ten coffee lots catalogued from lot 1 to lot 10, lot one should be the poorest and lot 10 the best. On simple evaluation of the lot numbers and the prices realised a strong positive correlation is realised.

Farmers should therefore work hard to improve the quality of their coffee.

Dr Irungu is a director at Murang’a County Coffee Directorate