Coffee, once touted as Kenya’s ‘Black Gold’ still ranks among the country’s top exports. Our coffee is still hailed as being among the best in the world. Millions of Kenyans depend on it for a livelihood. Our policymakers should therefore keep refreshing their approach to the sector for the economy to optimally harness this valuable resource.
Without doubt the fortunes of the sector have waned over the years. Many coffee farmers have embraced other crops promising better returns such as tea, macadamia, avocado and strawberries.
The shifting coffee landscape may be attributable to declining productivity, expensive inputs, lack of access to credit and shifting attitudes to coffee farming.
Moreover, the older generation may have keenly embraced coffee farming but younger Kenyans seem to be shunning the crop. They are leaving the rural areas in droves to look for jobs in towns and cities.
In tackling the myriad challenges facing the coffee sector, we must begin by addressing productivity as well as access to credit and markets. To revamp, we must put the farmer at the centre of the equation. He or she requires appropriate tools to boost productivity and access finance and critical information about the market. Information communication Technology (ICT) is one such tool.
Fortunately, ICT adoption in Kenya is quite impressive even by global standards. Breakthroughs like M-Pesa are evidence of this fact. Replicating such success stories in coffee should not be a problem if we sensitise the farmer on the use and benefits of such technology.
It is therefore quite encouraging to see good progress made by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Nairobi Coffee Exchange with the recent automation of the coffee auction system. This will enhance transparency of the auction process as farmers and agents can access instant market reports. This is the way to the future.
There are over 700,000 coffee farmers in Kenya. If only half of them fully embraced ICT platforms and applications we could radically transform coffee farming and revolutionise agriculture in the country. Since most, if not all coffee farmers also farm other produce, technology can be used to aggregate numerous other crops, thus creating economies of scale for local value addition.
This is the rationale underpinning an ongoing project spearheaded by the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union (KPCU). We are rolling out a platform enabling farmers to easily access services from KPCU. The innovative app also provides KPCU with valuable data about the farmer thus helping us anticipate and respond to emerging trends in the industry right from the coffee farm.
We have started enlisting farmers in the pilot phase using Android phones as these are readily available and easy to use. Working with field officers, KPCU is sensitising them on the long-term benefits of the platform. The information captured includes acreage under coffee, output and other crops grown on the farm. Such data is crucial in creating a holistic profile of the coffee farmer.
The big idea is to link farmers to accessible and affordable inputs and credit as these are acknowledged as critical needs. The information obtained is of value not just to KPCU but also to input suppliers and financial institutions. Achieving increased, but sustainable productivity requires that all actors in the value chain collaborate to address the needs of farmers.
So far, the response has been good. Many farmers are keen on how the platform will help them improve yields and returns. Given the convenience of using a mobile phone, most are now able to devote more of their time to tending their crop as opposed to travelling to co-operative society and KPCU offices in search of assistance.
The next phase of the project will involve working with financial and credit institutions to advance farmers loans for crop production. Declining productivity and output has made coffee farming a risky bet for credit providers. We want to change this by improving access to information about coffee farmers.
The final phase will entail providing direct linkages to local and international coffee markets and ensuring that all intermediaries in the value chain earn only a commission, based on the final produce value, as opposed to making large margins at the expense of the farmer.
All said, reversing the dwindling fortunes of Kenya’s coffee sector will obviously require more than just technology. We must also change attitudes about coffee farming. Technology is one way to make coffee farming ‘cool’ especially to our youth.
By pursuing innovative ways of working closely with the farmer, we shall certainly restore the glory of Kenya’s coffee industry to what it once was — the true Black Gold of our economy.