The intensive reforms that the Government is fast tracking in the coffee sub sector has been leading to high earnings for smallholder coffee farmers.
Growers have been smiling all the way to the bank since clean beans are attracting high prices due to the demand of both local and international markets.
Natural or specialty processing of coffee has been a rarity in the country with only one percent of traders tapping into that market.
Small scale coffee farmers especially those whose factories were almost shutting down due to challenges experienced before the government’s reforms are a happy lot as their clean coffee beans are attracting top prices in Europe specialty markets.
Four years ago, the farmers from Rui Ruiru and Kahiraini coffee factories adopted a new technology –greenhouse to dry ripe cherries owing to the high cost of production under the wet processing.
Using the method farmers have managed to produce specialty coffee leading to more than six and 25 times increase in terms of earnings and production at a time when coffee prices are low in the country for the last one year.
Natural coffee processing means drying high quality red ripe cherries without going through the pulping station, -drying the whole cherry including the skin and pulp.
In Europe, America and China markets the specialty beans are in high demand and thus paying high returns as compared to beans produced under wet processing. Under the system the farmers have managed to reduce cost of production by 40 per cent as the method largely relies on sun and heat in the greenhouses.
Greenhouse coffee processing because of temperatures takes 21 days compared to 45 days under wet processing.
Paul Muhoro, a Director with Crowd Farm limited, a local coffee dealer, explained during a visit to the two factories and where his company has been getting coffee from that his business plan targets almost collapsed coffee societies and assists farmers to use the new technology of producing natural coffee.
This , he said, avoids investment of huge resources to revive the drying beds as most of the farmers from those factory cannot afford to revive them and majority of the coffee societies in the country processing facilities like the drying beds , weighing and milling machines are dilapidated and thus require huge investments to revive them.
“In recent years, with the rise of specialty coffee, variations on these techniques have started to appear, often capitalizing on the fermentation that takes place during processing. We at Crowd Farm Africa Limited have taken the lead on experimental processing for natural, anaerobic Floral and sour natural coffees in Kenya,” said Muhoro.
He noted that they have been working with the New Kenya Planters Cooperative Union (N-KPCU) to ensure that the coffee beans the farmers are delivering is paid promptly and this has given the farmers confidence considering initially they used to get their returns after many months of waiting .
Muhoro confirmed that if the two factories can even go high by producing even more than 300,000 tonnes of coffee, the market is ready, “Currently our market is in Ukraine, we have introduced the same to China, we have sent several targeted samples to other buyers,” he said.
The coffee farmers export directly to overseas markets through assistance from Crowd Farm Africa, in partnership with the New Kenya Planters Cooperative Union (NKPCU) and this has directly earned the farmers Sh85 per kg compared to Sh65 per Kg of cherry they delivered four years ago.
New KPCU Managing Director Timothy Mirugi, said in an interview that the new processing method has worked well for small scale farmers and thus their beans have been highly regarded in the niche markets of American and Europe.
“When coffee is naturally processed, dense and fruity sugars develop within the coffee seed and express themselves when the coffee is roasted. Extra sugars developed within the coffee seed react well to the roasting process, and caramelise in higher quantities than with a washed coffee,” he explained
Mirugi added that this kind of processed beans can attain more than 88 points in the specialty markets and this has succeeded as New KPCU has been linking farmers with the quality players in the markets so that farmers can benefit generously.
“Specialty coffee is in high demand globally, and thus requires local farmers to invest in the latest processing technology and observe good agricultural practices,” Mirugi added.
Nderitu Gachagua, Esther Njambi and Esther Wairimu are some of the small scale farmers Rui Ruiru and Kahiraini factories in Mathira North farmers’ cooperative society in Nyeri County celebrating high returns as their clean beans fetched impressive prices in Europe specialty markets.
Nderitu who planted his coffee bushes in 1962 and has expanded the land into three acres says the industry has experienced mixed performance since the 1960s to date. “I cannot regret having remained in coffee farming all these years despite the prevailing bottlenecks. At the end of 2022, I produced over 3000 kilograms which translated to impressive earnings compared to yesteryears,” he said .
The 525 Rui Ruiru farmers have increased production from 4,000 kilograms in 2019 to 101,000 kgs in 2022. The farmers are optimistic coffee beans will earn more money in the coming years as the Government continues intensifying reforms.
“Now that President William Ruto domiciled coffee reform agenda in his Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua’s office, the industry is expected to be more vibrant and therefore enable farmers to earn more income,” said Nderitu
“Since coffee’s inception in the 1960s, we have been drying the beans under the wet processing method which is labour intensive, leading to high electricity and water costs thus affecting our payments every year. indeed, in some years we ended up not earning anything as the high cost of production ate into our hard earned sweat,” he added.
Coffee processing under the new method, the Septuagenarian noted, is not only cost effective especially for struggling coffee factories with no capacity to revive the wet processing stations but also environmentally friendly as it saves on water usage, labor and electricity.
After being milled and then tasted in the specialty markets, the beans when directly shipped can record between 88 and 90 points compared to clean beans produced under the wet processing methods.
For Njambi, the industry fundamentals are still intact and therefore if well exploited can lead to high returns to the farmers.
“In 1980s, we were not making a lot of money but our endurance has paid well and today we are receiving impressive returns. The new drying method is well paying,” Njambi said. She added, “We have witnessed tremendous increase in coffee proceeds more than any other time in the history of coffee farming.”
Under the partnership between New KPCU and Crowd Farm Africa farmers are paid through the Mpesa and the growers who have more income than the M-pesa limits are paid through their bank accounts. “As I was working on my farm I received the earned cash through M-pesa. This has inspired us to continue working more in our farms,” Njambi added.
The aged farmers confirmed their willingness to pass the baton to their youth as part of enticing them to coffee farming.
Esther Wairimu, a youth dismissed a notion that coffee farming is an outdated economic activity saying change of mindsets among the young people will help them tame the myriad of challenges they are facing of joblessness.
“I was given one acre of land by my parents that had some coffee bushes. Through my initiative I have been able to add more bushes and this time round I harvest over 200 kgs of coffee cherries and this brought me good money,” she said and urging young people who are still looking for white collar jobs to invest in coffee production
Coffee production in the country has soared and this has been brought about by Subsidized fertilizers and access to affordable farm inputs and this has seen production volumes grow 50.24 per cent during the crop year 2021/2022 to hit 51,843 tonnes compared to 34,505 recorded a year earlier.
By Wangari Ndirangu