Coffee ranks among key foreign exchange earners for Kenya. However, its production has over the years been dwindling to stand at a paltry 40,000 tonnes annually from highs of 150,000 tonnes at its peak.
The decline has been partly attributed to farmers abandoning the crop due to poor returns, adverse effects of climate change and an ageing farming population.
To stop the sector from suffering the same fate as pyrethrum, Kenya has stepped up initiatives to boost production in the race to match successful producers such as Ethiopia, which is one of the top exporting nations of the Arabica variety in the world market.
To achieve the targeted production, government and non-governmental actors via coffee revitalisation programme, have developed new varieties that can withstand harsher climatic conditions and have come up with new technologies to spur yields.
The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) has been working on technologies that will save farmers from the effects of climate change and deal with pests and diseases.
Harrison Mugo, a research scientist with Kalro at Coffee Research Institute (CRI) says the institution has developed a new technology that enables farmers to continue harvesting the produce from their old variety while the new one, which is attached to the old tree through grafting continues to mature.
“With the new technology, we use the old varieties that are already on the farm, by raising suckers and then grafting them with scions of the resistant coffee varieties," said Dr Mugo.
“During grafting, farmers will still be harvesting their coffee from the old tree as they raise the new suckers until they are ready to produce before getting rid of it.”
Dr Mugo said through this process, the old coffee is converted into a new variety and because they do not require much space like the old ones, farmers can add other trees in between the spaces.
Dr Mugo said production over the years has stagnated as farmers are using the old coffee varieties that were planted decades ago and, which are susceptible to two major diseases- coffee Berry diseases and coffee leave rust.
The improved varieties- Ruiru 11 and Batian, which are also high yielding, can withstand the two coffee diseases hence enhancing farmers' yields.
“With the new varieties, farmers can increase their income by 30 percent because they will not have to use pesticides to control the two diseases, cutting on production costs,” he said.
Kalro, Director General, Eliud Kireger says with climate change in Kenya becoming a reality, traditional coffee-producing areas are becoming drier, hence unsuitable for the crop while zones, which were not producing the crop before are now emerging as new frontiers.
“There is a shift already in terms of where coffee is now being produced in the country as well as globally, due to climate change. There is a focus that big players like Colombia and Brazil, are witnessing a falling trend in their production,” said Dr Kireger.
Colombia and Brazil are the world’s largest producers of coffee and a decline in production in the last planting season has benefited Kenya whose income from the crop went up by 62 percent in 11 months to August to hit $210 million. Coffee year in Kenya starts in October.
Traditional coffee-rowing regions in Kenya are Machakos, Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Nyeri, Murang’a, Kiambu and Kirinyaga.
Trans-Nzoia and Uasin Gishu are the new emerging regions where coffee is now gaining momentum. The two counties, which are predominantly known for maize production, are steadily embracing the beverage.
Trans-Nzoia County Executive Member for Agriculture Mary Nzomo says the area under coffee has in the last couple of years increased from 2,000 hectares to 2,800 with the devolved unit setting a target of achieving 5,000 hectares in coming years.
“As a county government, we embarked on a crop diversification programme with coffee being one of them. We have been rehabilitating previously existing coffee bushes to come up with the variety that can withstand the effects of climate change,” said Dr Nzomo.
She said the county introduced a subsidy programme where farmers purchased seedlings for Sh10 instead of Sh20 as it was before to attract more growers.
The coffee value chain has many enterprises, apart from selling berries, there are other opportunities like nursery management, seed propagation, and grafting and value addition.
According to Kalro, the average age of a coffee farmer is 64 years hence there is a need to have the younger generation pick up this farming. But this is changing as more youth are encouraged to consider coffee farming.
Victor Murei, a 23-year-old young farmer, picked coffee farming from his father and is now managing over three acres of the produce on their Tran-Nzoia farm.
His father, Zephaniah Chemweno, a retired teacher, says he introduced his son to the coffee business for the sake of continuity of the enterprise.
“I realised that my son is interested in farming and so I decided to introduce him to coffee and since 2019 he has been actively involved in this farming,” said Mr Chemweno.
The Information Technology graduate says he is breaking the narrative that farming is for the old and those who did not go to school.
“My age mates would argue that farming is for old folks and they would rather work in the office. I want to tell them that the future is in farming,” said Mr Murei.
Mr Murei is also doing seed propagation which he sells to farmers as a way of raising more income for himself. Beveline Birira is another youth farmer. The 26-year-old who is a graduate of community development has embraced coffee farming having in mind the role that the crop played in her education.
“After completing my university education, my father gave me this piece of land which had an existing coffee crop to manage and I have since then embraced this venture,” she said.
Ms Birira also does coffee propagation and she currently has over 20,000 seedlings at her farm, which are already booked due to the high demand from upcoming farmers.