A worrying situation in Nyeri

Nyeri is a county in Kenya that produces some of the stunning coffees we’ve come to love. Coffee in the region is generally produced by small holders, rather than larger estates, which means we are used to seeing traceability down to the local factories (the term used in Kenya for a wet mill) that farmer’s societies choose to work with.

Recent changes to Kenya’s political structure has given more power to local counties, and in Nyeri there has been a proposed change that is  worrying. The governor of the county, Nderitu Gachagua, has announced that all of the coffee in the region shall be milled at a single mill (called Sagana) and the coffee should be pooled and sold through a newly formed company. The logic behind this is that the politicians believe that they can achieve higher prices for the coffee and pass those higher prices on to the producers. From a political perspective it should be noted that farmers are often the target of political manoeuvring in areas where they make up a large portion of the voter base, and this is very much the case in Nyeri.

While great Kenyan coffees produced by the mills throughout Nyeri can already be quite expensive, compared to many other sources of green coffee, there have long been challenges in making sure that the premiums achieved make their way to the producers. This is not a universal problem, by any means, but something that many producers are aware of. However I don’t think that reduced traceability like this, or pushing all of the coffee through one mill, will preserve the interests of growers who produce the highest quality coffee in the region. As a roaster, the idea of offering a coffee traceable simply down to Nyeri isn’t strongly appealing – and there several other regions in Central Kenya (and increasingly west of the Rift Valley) growing great coffees, with sufficient traceability. As traceability is a core tenet of my business this must factor into decision making and purchasing.

In an effort to further the political cause the Central Kenyan Coffee Mill (familiar to a great many speciality buyers) has essentially been shut down, and I’m sure I’m not alone in being extremely skeptical as to why and how this has been done.

While I am sure this centralising move does have some support in the farmer base, I do not think it is in the best interests of every farmer. 13 farmers’ societies have taken this to court to get an injunction, though their case won’t be heard until February 10th. That isn’t the best news considering the harvest has started.

As I’m based in Europe I suppose I should be looking to my trade association (SCAE) for advocacy and support in a situation like this, but I don’t think this will happen. Realistically I am hoping that the SCAA may have some opportunity to support the idea of retaining better levels of traceability. I’m sure we’ll see more information on this shared soon, but I thought spreading the word was a good idea.

In summary, I’m concerned that we’re going to lose some traceability (and potentially quality through separation) from some of the best coffees in the world. I’m concerned that legal wrangling, even best case scenario, could several delay the export of those coffees (not something anyone wants), and that this decision is being made my people who don’t really understand our sector of the market.

UPDATE

Mette- Marie Hansen also sent me this link. The whole thing is worth reading, but it is hard to ignore this bit.

The county government envisages a situation where once the coffee is milled, they can approach buyers and negotiate to supply either milled or roasted coffee at a premium price.

County Secretary for Agriculture Shadrack Mubea said earlier in the week that the governor was keen to explore potential markets, especially in non-traditional markets such as America and China.

Wilson Karime, the chairman of the Gititu Coffee Factory, which is under the four factory Aguthi Coffee Farmers Society, urged Nyeri farmers to give the governor a chance to prove his worth.

“The past model has favoured middlemen and buyers,” said Karime. “I see no harm in trying a new set if it finally benefits farmers.”

Emphasis added is mine. This is undeniably an approach that doesn’t understand the needs of speciality buyers, and doesn’t truly value quality.