Coffee sector reels from thieving

Soaring coffee prices have brought back problems of old for coffee farmers, who are now facing escalating thefts from their farms, factories and in transit - amounting to more than Sh250m of coffee in the last year, according to government estimates - and insurance underwriters now suggesting premiums may have to rise to cover the new, higher risk levels.

Farmers who uprooted coffee in the 1990's due to the poor returns, have been slowly returning to the crop as international demand has risen, with cooperatives now paying farmers far more to encourage them to deliver greater volumes.

As a result, a kilo of coffee currently fetches an average Sh160, up from just Sh50 in the 1990's.

This turnaround has, however, turned sour for farmers and coffee cooperatives as theft of the berries hits unprecedented levels, provoking rounds of finger pointing, as farmers blame millers and marketers for orchestrating thefts that have even seen lives lost - with watchmen hired to guard the factories now fearing for their lives, after three of them have been hacked to death.

The Coffee Board of Kenya (CBK) mainly blames marketing agents for the vice, saying at least three are now being investigated and may be deregistered. But sector insiders claim that good international prices, and idle processing capacity at commercial millers, are also an incentive for increased thefts.

Farmers are also blaming the Coffee Board of Kenya for failing to enforce the ban on night transit of coffee berries, which is the time when most of the thefts are now taking place.

The worst hit areas have been Central, Nyanza and Kisii, where the thefts run from farms to factories, with traders even hiring people to harvest farmers' coffee during the night and on Sundays when homes are deserted due to church attendance.

Mary Kinoti, a coffee farmer from Tetu District in Nyeri county, will never forget the Sunday afternoon she decided to take a stroll in her coffee farm as she prepared to harvest the ripe berries the next day. “I was counting on some 50kilos in that harvest. To my shock I found everything plucked. I thought I was dreaming. Never in my coffee farming history have I ever experienced such an act,” said the middle-aged mother of three, who only replanted coffee due to the high prices it was attracting.

Factories where the coffee is dried and fermented are equally suffering, with now many cases of watchmen being tied up as coffee is loaded into trucks.

The most recent incident occurred at Kanunga Coffee Factory in Kiambu, last month, where a watchman was killed after a 10-man gang drove into the factory and took more than 5,000kg of parchment coffee. Other cases that have resulted in deaths have been when coffee has been stolen in transit.

With the country's installed milling capacity now far exceeding Kenya’s production of 40,000 tonnes a year, millers must now compete intensively for sufficient supplies to mill, as must marketers, in order to satisfy the demand for premium coffee from their clients.

It is also now emerging that dealers have over the years been engaged in subtle swindling of coffee from farmers, earning millions of shillings from irregular sales. However, it is the loopholes that abet the fraud – with dealers apparently able to deliver coffee to the market without authentication.

Farmers and even the Coffee Board are now moving to contain the theft, although at extra cost. Mutheka Factory members in Nyeri county has countered possible theft by ensuring that factories do not accumulate large stocks of dried beans, sending their produce immediately to millers and ready markets. They have also been keeping vigil at the factories.

The Coffee Board of Kenya has also been sending alerts to coffee factories detailing measures to take to curb theft, “millers, warehouse men and dealers must, at all times, insist on a valid movement permit for all coffees received at their premises, as a sign of authenticity, transparency and traceability,” the board said last year.

But as the theft continues to rise, the renewed vigour in coffee growing is now being dented by the thieving, which is discouraging farmers and impacting overall economic growth, at a time when coffee was slowly rising again to become one of the country's biggest foreign exchange earner after tea.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter