Stuck in past, Kenyans produce but take no coffee

Only a few exclusive coffee brewers in Nairobi
Only a few exclusive coffee brewers in Nairobi sell top grade coffee, but at prices way beyond the common coffee farmers’ reach. /Liz Muthoni 

It could certainly sound like malicious talk — a country produces the best beverage in the world and only two per cent of the produce is consumed by the locals.

Welcome to Kenya where consumption of coffee has refused to pick. The numbers are too low. 

“There is a big problem, a problem that is very close to my heart, coffee farmers out there tend to drink coffee only when they do not have milk,” says Ms Bridget Carrington, Dorman Ltd managing director.

The genesis of this state of affairs is traced to colonial coffee laws that prevented Africans from roasting coffee straight from their farms.

The Coffee Act, enacted in 1933 had also banned growing of coffee by Africans and inculcated the wrong perception that coffee was elitist. Even today the laws governing the coffee crop are strict.


“The Coffee Act does not allow a farmer to roast his own coffee, if he does that, it will be illegal,” said an official with the Coffee Board of Kenya, who did not want his name revealed because he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the board.

This year, the country is expected to produce 851 thousand bags of coffee. But out of these, only 17 thousand bags will be consumed locally. The rest will be exported as raw product to leading coffee brewers across the globe.

But why? In Kenya, a cup of top quality coffee costs three times what the average coffee farmer gets paid for a kilogramme of coffee beans. This makes the farmers preach coffee, but take porridge.

It is one of the industry’s best kept secrets, that the Coffee Act, enacted 76 years ago still makes it a criminal offence for small-scale farmers to roast and brew their own coffee.

The Coffee Act, he said, was enacted in the colonial era, when coffee was exclusively grown by and for the European market. Then, it was a criminal offence for Africans to farm coffee without permission of the local colonial office.

“Coffee was a preserve of the whites, unfortunately we have not changed this attitude,” said the coffee official.

For the few Kenyans who take coffee occasionally, they don’t get to taste the country’s finest quality coffee. And if the get to it is most likely imported coffee.

“The finest coffee is exported, because it earns better outside, much of what is sold locally is actually lower quality coffee,” said the coffee board official.

Top quality coffee he said, is too expensive, even for the people who helped produce it.

Only a few exclusive coffee brewers in Nairobi sell top grade coffee albeit at prices way beyond the common coffee farmers reach. A cup of top notch coffee in these coffee houses goes for between Sh100 and Sh200.

As a result, small-scale farmers like Serah Nyawira, 40, can only dream of enjoying a cup of top quality coffee. Even though her factory-Tegu Coffee Factory in Karatina, won a trophy for producing the best coffee in the country.

“I cannot afford it,” the mother of three told Business Daily.

Leading coffee roasters say it is an uphill task convincing Kenyans to consume their own coffee, even though it is ranked among the best in the world. They say low local consumption of coffee is working against the industry.

 “If each Kenyan consumed one cup of coffee every day, the country would be forced to produce three times more,” said Ms Carrington.

According to the coffee experts, one of the biggest competitors for Kenyan coffee-Brazil- consumes 30 per cent of what it produces. The Latino-Americans consume 16 million bags of their own coffee annually, before exporting the rest.

Another leading coffee exporter-Ethiopia—consume almost a half of what they produce.

Kenyans on the other hand consume a paltry two per cent of what they produce, translating to less than 25,000 bags per year.

The result is bad business for local coffee roasters: “We only roast 10 per cent of the coffee we buy for local consumption and a few orders outside the country, 90 per cent is shipped out as raw product,” said Ms Carrington.

The leading coffee brewers are among the stakeholders rooting for amendments in the Coffee Act, to allow small-scale farmers roast their own coffee. This, they say, will help change the negative perception towards the beverage, amongst a vast majority of Kenyans.

Early this month, Dorman Ltd led a group of Americans to the country side to meet small-scale farmers who produced some of the best coffee in the country. According to the company MD, the visitors were surprised their hosts would not serve them coffee.

 “We need to encourage Kenyans to consume what they produce,” said the coffee brewing firm’s director.

Coffee production in the country has fallen drastically compared to the 80’s, when the country produced over 100 million kilogrammes annually.

This year, the country is expected to produce 51 million kilogrammes of coffee, equivalent to 851 thousand bags.

The coffee sub-sector registered a 21.3 per cent decline in production from 53,400 tonnes in 2006/07 to 42,000 tonnes in the 2007/08 according to the Economic Survey 2009.

The drop has been blamed on erratic weather patterns and fewer acreages under coffee as farmers opted for cash and food crops that bring in better revenue.