Is Kenyan Coffee Sector Dying or in a Renaissance?

Would you invest in a business that has seen a drop in production of 90% over the last two decades? My Economics Professor would have certainly told me to “run fast and far away” but my inquisitive mind tells me to dig deeper before I reach the same conclusion. I recently visited a couple of cooperatives in Kiambu and Murang’a counties. Indeed, it looked like time had stopped with machinery twice my age and aging farmers emphasizing other crops such as avocados, macadamias, and dairy production. With poor returns and several challenges that plague the coffee sector in Kenya, many farmers have uprooted coffee and planted other tree crops like macadamia and avocado thus declining production. Despite all this, the farmers I met were proud and upbeat and all I interviewed wanted to revitalize the sector.

Kenya produces coffee from unique growing regions and has a distinctive taste found nowhere else in the world. Our very own AA is without a doubt a high-quality coffee, ranked as one of the best among the coffee-producing regions of the world. I spoke to a manager of a large coffee buyer who said, “there’s definitely demand for AA, but quantity is unreliable.” Demand is there so, why is Kenyan coffee production in decline?

Currently, Kenya is the 5th largest producer of coffee in Africa after Ethiopia, Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire, and Tanzania. In the year 2021, Kenya exported 35,163MT of coffee which was valued at approximately US$15.9M a decline from 40,980MT valued at US$20.5M in 2020. The decline was due to a long drought period that was experienced in 2021. About 70% of Kenyan coffee is produced by small-scale farmers under various cooperatives where it is processed, milled, marketed, and sold through an auction system. According to the KNBS report, 478,613 households grow coffee in Kenya. The sector supports six million Kenyans directly and indirectly and provides 6% of the total agricultural export. Kenyan coffee is mainly rainfed, however, some large private firms grow under irrigation.

According to the GAIN 2021/2022 report, the area harvested decreased from 112,000ha to 105, 000 ha due to encroachment of real estate development in peri-urban plantations. Other factors affecting the sector include the aging population who can’t keep up with the coffee labor needs coupled with the changing climate and poor returns. There is the question of continuity with children of coffee farmers not wanting to continue the legacy because they see no good income in the coffee business. The old coffee varieties can no longer survive the harsh temperatures, prolonged periods of droughts, and emerging pests and diseases. Input cost has also increased and inadequate knowledge on good agronomic practices has contributed to the decline in production.

The demand for good quality coffee globally continues to increase and premium prices are paid for quality. Kenyan coffee farmers must adapt to the changing climatic conditions and increasing urbanization that threatens coffee production. ADAPTA is partnering with a large co-operative to help coffee farmers increase productivity per bush and diversify income. The cooperative membership counts with 71 coffee societies and buyers, representing about 70% of total Kenyan coffee production. Monocropping is a double-edged sword thus farmers need to diversify income sources to meet daily expenses and cushion themselves against production failures. In Colombia, farmers incorporated bananas and avocado trees in coffee farms to shield coffee trees against the hot temperatures, as well as get some income from the sale of bananas and avocadoes.

ADAPTA will support coffee farmers in grafting with better coffee varieties and/or help improve the production of premium varieties commonly grown. ADAPTA in partnership with CGIAR will also advise farmers on the right sustainable soil, water, and crop management practices to undertake to maximize production. According to the cooperative, new regions have been opening especially in the Rift Valley, a good sign of growing interest. Last year, Kenyan coffee was sold at a favorably good price, which is a great motivation for farmers. Increasing yields, new regions opening for coffee production, income diversification, and better prices, are signs of revival.

If there were no market demand, I would agree with my Economics Professor, but the market demand for Kenya AA is strong and will get stronger. Kenyans let’s put our heads together and help the industry into its renaissance.

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