The coffee sector has of late been attracting negative publicity. Introduced in the 1900s as a regulated cash crop, farmers would plant 100 trees per acre. Later that policy was reviewed. By 1960s, coffee penetration into the central highlands was impressive.
After Independence, co-operative unions were introduced for effective and efficient management of the sector. They were avenues for accessing credit facilities. This approach cushioned and supported other economic activities through supply of subsidised farm inputs.
Such support led to continued commitment to coffee farming. Cartels began in 1970s when Nairobi and Mombasa business tycoons smuggled Ugandan coffee cherries into the country.
Christened as the ‘Chepkube coffee boom’ the Ugandan ‘black gold’ created overnight millionaires. Since then, coffee farming began taking a beating from frequent rip offs.
Later they assumed control over supply of farm inputs interrupting access to farmers hence reverting to markets for supplies. Weighing tills were manipulated, denying farmers their rightful share of deliveries.
Consequently, farmers were unable to service their debts. Quality declined fetching low prices in the market. Introduction of Ruiru 11 a climate resistance variety 1985 was no better.
The variety had a lower crop quality as compared to other varieties. The ripple effect impacted on food crop production. Lack of farm inputs led to poor food production.
Small-scale coffee farming died off. Coffee farms were deserted and uptake of alternative crops became noticeable. There were no economies of scale for established coffee farmers since most unions operated below capacity.
Manifested cartels would later on vandalize unions’ assets and steal coffee berries. The Grand Coalition Government proposed timely settlement of monies owed to farmers for their deliveries at 40 per cent in an attempt to revamp the sector. This policy approach was unable to entice farmers to farming.
A farmer from Othaya observed that a coffee grower invests 60 days of his time yearly tending his coffee crop then spends 305 days waiting for payment.
Amount paid for a kilo delivered is equally inadequate. Consider a kilo of coffee going for two shillings ten cents. Hardly can a farmer break even.
A presidential task force in 2016 recommended 40 per cent regular payments, subsidised farm inputs, writing off coffee debts, change of marketing strategies etc. However, there is need for policy shift along production, value addition and marketing chains.
A once lucrative economic activity, farmers’ derived satisfaction and esteem from coffee farming. Until such pride is ploughed back to the modern farmer, whose allegiance has shifted to dairy farming, the coffee sector will remain in shambles.
Failure to reward effort in a society where every aspect is monetized is dehumanizing and demoralizing to say the least.
There is need to revamp co-operative unions, introduce a pest and disease resistant variety, promote cottage industries for value addition, enhance accountability and transparency and come up with an adaptive variety to climate change.
Kiragu Kariuki, Co-ordinator, National Drought Management Authority, Nyeri.