Coffee milling is no hard science; farmers should do it themselves

AA grade coffee at Sasini coffee milling factory in Kiambu on May 19, 2022. [David Gichuru, Standard]

If there was a time the coffee sector was treated to major reforms it is this year and last year, thanks to Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua. Hard decisions had to be made, sometimes making industry experts wonder whether we are headed in the right direction.

The sector has been taken back to where it was several years ago when most of the coffee used to be milled by the farmers-owned Kenya Planters’ Cooperative Union (KPCU).

As I write this, a huge percentage of Kenyan coffee is being milled by the New KPCU. The tradition of a single company milling, marketing and buying coffee is now part of our past, thanks to the two-day conference in Meru. We need to empower farmers’ coffee unions to be able to mill their own coffee.

And that is not enough; they also need to roast and package the coffee to be part of the strategy of changing society from ‘other beverages’ drinkers to coffee drinkers. Kenyans are known to be very poor coffee drinkers. This will require a culture change and cannot be achieved in the short run.

We are experiencing teething problems; some mills are having capacity issues in terms of the throughput of the coffee parchment they are able to handle per hour. They shouldn’t be condemned. This is a challenge that can be addressed in the short run. I hope this challenge will not be there in the next season.

We, in this sub-sector, know that there are no attractive profit margins in milling coffee, but the farmers need to mill their coffee for the sake of aggregating the produce for potential buyers.

Nothing frustrates me like seeing a buyer visiting a cooperative society to buy coffee only to get disappointed due to low volumes. Most of our coffee cooperatives do not have volumes that can sustain a coffee roaster in the market and that is why there is a need to aggregate clean coffee in a mill.

Do we need private coffee mills? Oh, yes! They are important. So long as they are licensed as per our regulations, they will serve the sector well. One of the private mills serves farmers well when the volumes in the union mills are high, making it impossible to mill the coffee in time. Most of the time there is urgency to mill and offload the coffee to the market since the farmers want their coffee sold so that they can meet their domestic and farm expenses.

Some counties have licensed mills that are associated with coffee-buying companies. This should not happen next year. It is commendable that some millers have voluntarily stopped milling to concentrate with coffee trading as required by the coffee regulations.

My prayer is that we don’t relax the rules that we have used to ensure compliance with the 2019 coffee regulations.

But we have also messed up. A hot topic that has been avoided by all of us is the investment made by the coffee mills that were denied licenses due to conflict of interest. I am sure the owners know what they should have done to acquire the licenses. One way would be to give part ownership to farmers' representatives. This has happened before.

The challenge the farmers’ unions will have in the short run is the low coffee volumes, making their cost management a tough challenge. But with the reforms, the farmers have an opportunity to take charge of their coffee business.

The government and the regulations are supporting the farmer to have more say in the coffee business. We need to apply for the Commodities Fund and Cherry Advance Fund to boost production and make our mills sustainable. When we have adequate production, we will have enough coffee parchment for all the players, be it the unions, private millers, brokerage companies and every other player in the market.

Coffee milling is no hard science, and the farmer can do it with no struggle. Finally, the production of 2 kilogrammes per tree will not sustain your dry mill and will most likely send it to an early grave and the farmer back to the bitter past.