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Why Nyeri coffee farmers are harvesting poverty and misery from plantations

By Obar Mark | August 24th 2015

In the early hours of 31st July 2015, on the slopes of Mount Kenya in Nyeri County, a major protest is brewing. Coffee farmers are preparing for an exercise that will define or change their destinies. The maneuver to voice their dissatisfaction is a necessary feud, even though, Nyeri County Governor Nderitu Gachagwa is against it.

A Ward development meeting turned chaotic after coffee farmers demanded withdrawal from the county government’s initiative to market and sell coffee which they claimed is not benefiting them. Member of County Assembly for Iriani Ward, James Kariuki had asked members of the public to attend a meeting to discuss the development projects in the area. However a section of residents claimed that the farmers from the Gikanda coffee factory society did not want to sell their coffee through Kenya Co-operative Coffee Exporters (KCCE).

Less than a decade ago, coffee farming was one of the well paying jobs in the country. Three years ago, John Wanderi, a businessman from Kairi village in Mathioya, Murang’a County, embarked on his retirement plan by venturing into a business he knew so well from childhood – coffee farming. Things have however changed for Wanderi, just like it has changed for many coffee farmers. Many coffee farmers in Nyeri County claim that they are the poorest of the poor in the society.

“We are dying of hunger and our children cannot go to school,” a demonstrating coffee farmer shouted from the crowd.

Vested interests by local and international brokers sprinkled with a liberal dose of politics and opaque operations have all conspired to frustrate thousands of coffee farmers in Nyeri County. Rose Njeri, a coffee farmer in Gituamba village, in Gatanga, Muranga County, had given up on coffee farming after her farm was invaded by diseases and suffered low prices. She started intercropping it with maize and beans.

“I could not afford to buy pesticides that the coffee factory gave us on loan,” she says.

According to Governor Nderitu Gachagua, the farmers were supposed to be given Sh130 per one kilogram of coffee. This price was reached after conducting analysis of marketing the produce internationally by bypassing local brokers, but is now on the receiving end from politicians, farmers and the national government. The height of suffering and poverty among coffee farmers in Nyeri County has been revealed

Since assuming office last year, Gachagua has embarked on an initiative to market Nyeri coffee directly to various global market sources, but appears to have underestimated the coffee marketing system which is a well-knit system dominated by international coffee dealers since the colonial days.

So far, it is estimated that coffee worth about Sh2 billion has been sold, but buyers have received less than Sh355 million. Governor Gachagua, in a morning talk show in one of the local radio stations last Friday, said that farmers will have to wait for at least a month to get paid.

“We will pay all the farmers and try to iron out any prevailing difference,” said the Nyeri Governor.

In April 2012, three years after the Coffee Research Institute released the Batian coffee variety, many farmers bought and planted 2,000 seedlings at Sh50 each.

Coffee Research Institute revealed that, 700,000 farmers are actively engaged in coffee production in Kenya, but the annual production has been inconsistent due to vested interests, corruption, disease and socio-economic factors. 

Coffee farmers across the country have relied on the Scott Laboratories (SL). These are coffee varieties that are susceptible to diseases such as the coffee berry disease and coffee leaf rust. Coffee berry disease affects young berries and can cause 50 to 80 percent loss.

The over 700,000 farmers had a production scale with a minimal increase in the area planted under coffee from 109.8 thousand hectares in 2013 to 110.0 thousand hectares in 2014. The area under coffee in cooperatives and estates increased by 100 hectares each during the year under review. However, production in estates declined for the second year running.

Despite depressed production in the estates, the coffee sub-sector recorded an overall increase in production of 24.4 per cent from 39.8 thousand tonnes in 2013 to 49.5 thousand tonnes in the review period. This was largely from the cooperative sub-sector which recorded a 49.3 per cent increase from 21.9 thousand tonnes in 2013 to 32.7 thousand tonnes in 2014.

The increase was attributed to factors such as bi-annual coffee production cycle where one season of good harvest is followed by a drop in the following season. Recently planted coffee coming into production and improved investment in coffee production also contributed to the increase. The average yield for the cooperative sector increased by 48.4 per cent while that of the estates decreased by 5.0 per cent – but the devil is in the details.

The County Mr Gachagua had promised coffee farmers Sh130 or USD 1.27 per one kilogram of coffee. The farmers say that they normally get between 10% to 37% of the promised price.

At the international market, International Coffee Organization (ICO) published that July, 2015 prices for coffee were ranging between USD 119.62 (Kshs. 12, 257) to USD 154. 57 (Kshs. 15, 920. 71). Still, boosted by high coffee prices, the exports in this sector grew 20 percent in 2014 over the previous year, according to a year-end World Bank report.

“The country has experienced depressed rainfall during the first quarter of 2015 while weather forecasts points to a possibility of insufficient long rains in parts of the country. Performance of the agricultural sector is therefore likely to remain close to the 2014 levels." Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary, Anne Waiguru projected.

Julians Amboko, a research analyst at the Nairobi-based financial advisory company Stratlink, has in the past helped the Kenyan economists identify the country's top 10 export sectors in 2014. Total export sales from last year are shown rounded to the nearest dollar, using an exchange rate of Sh100.8 to the dollar.

"Europe, as we know, has been facing a slowdown in recent years, so that has been playing against [Kenyan exporters]," he says.

Going by the figures above, an ordinary farmer in Nyeri County and in any other part of the country could be losing over 97% of what they should be earning.

In Kenya coffee is produced in both small-scale farms and big estates. It is estimated that over 700,000 smallholders and over 3,000 estates are engaged in coffee production. The small-scale producers account for about 70% percent of the total coffee area and currently command a 48% share of the market. Interestingly, they are the poorest since they are paid peanuts by one kilogram of exported coffee. Over 99% of the country’s production of coffee is arabica.

Economic survey indicates that Kenya exported 49, 500 tonnes of coffee in 2014 – which means that production increased from 39, 000 tonnes in 2013. However, critical analysis indicates that between 2% to 3.7% of coffee exported from Kenya could not be accounted for in terms of its origin. This could be as a result of contraband operations of coffee cartels in the marketing sub-sectors. The discrepancies and mismatch in the coffee pricing is killing the future of many coffee farmers in Kenya. Many of the farmers are not able to take care of very basic needs like good food, shelter, clothing or even to take their children to school.   

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