Kenya steps up resolve to save its coffee

The Kenyan government in conjunction with the private sector has teamed up to reclaim the lost glory of coffee, widely known as Kenya's black gold which has has performed dismally locally even as it attracts heavy earnings in the interrnational market.

Scenes of farmers uprooting coffee trees on the premise of poor returns and unstable market have been common place in the last decade. This, even as the commodity continues to record impressive trading at the global market being among the few most traded commodities in the world with an estimated value of 80 billion U.S. dollars.

Interestingly Arabica variety which Kenya predominantly grows is much sought after worldwide for making fresh coffee and up-market instant coffees, with cheaper instant brands made primarily from Robusta. This variety is touted as having created the 80’s and 90’s millionaires in Kenya who were fondly referred to as the black millionaires.

Coffee was a top exchanger earner for the country injecting over sh100 billion to the Gross Domestic Product. But in a dramatic twist, those who stuck with the black gold now nurture litany of woes and disappointments. Currently annual production in Kenya stands at a dismal 50,000 metric tones, compared to over 100,000 tonnes a decade ago. And despite its reputed distinctive taste, the country’s coffee has no identity at the global level as it is normally used to blend lower quality tastes from other countries.

So where exactly did the train leave the rails. Poor governance in the cooperative sector, poor prices, climate change, and high production costs have been among the chief causes of the dwindling glory with declining land holding sizes, aging coffee plants, competition with other agricultural enterprises and real estate development equally being contributors. It is estimated that over 700,000 small-scale and large-scale farmers are involved in coffee farming. In addition, the coffee industry, due to its forward and backward linkages, directly and indirectly benefits about 5 million people in our country.

But it has not all been doom and gloom. Government, aware of the near death of the once lucrative commodity has swung into action. In 2006 it liberalised coffee marketing by removing the involvement of Coffee Board in marketing and introduced direct sales so that farmers could negotiate their prices directly with the consumers. It also established the Coffee Development Fund which is currently disbursing sh1 billion to farmers for seasonal credit.

Private companies who know the value coffee has on the national economy have also stepped up their commitment to promoting its production. Elgon Kenya Limited is one such company. Through an array of world class pesticides, the company ensures that every farmer has access to these arsenals at their convenience thanks to its rich agrovet and stockist distribution network across the country. “We have environmentally friendly and fast acting pesticides that ensure that stubborn pests and coffee diseases like mealybug, Leaf miner and Coffee Berry Disease among others are no longer a farmer’s headache. Our stockists and agrovets are ably trained on the right pesticide to recommend in case of a coffee disease/pest attack,” said Mr. Nelson Maina Head of Communication at Elgon Kenya. Elgon Kenya has been working with BASF one of the leading chemical companies globally to bring pest control arsenals to farmers in affordable quantities.

Such efforts are hailed as the first steps in resuscitating the lost glory of Kenya’s black gold. Industry players now see a window of hope in the devolved government and call on the new leaders to heighten commitment to these special commodities cannot be gainsaid. Revamping of the defunct coffee SACCO’s and abolishing of cartels that have frustrated farmers earnings will and should be the first priority of all in the devolved government.