From A Concerned Farmer

At the beginning of August I wrote about the turmoil in Kenya’s coffee sector as part of my weekly news roundup for Fresh Cup Magazine. In July the country’s central auction house, the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE), closed pending government reforms to the way coffee is traded. All the coverage came from Kenyan newspapers, with little (maybe no?) attention from coffee media.

The NCE’s closure meant that coffee destined for the exchange piled up with nowhere to go and farmers hired extra security to protect their harvests from thieves. All because the government wanted to eradicate the “cartels” it said were ruining the industry through corruption and price manipulation. This is something that Christopher Feran touched on a couple of years ago in an excellent piece on the decline of Kenyan coffee.

The exchange reopened a few weeks later (I wrote about this as well) after the government made some reforms and changed the trader licensing system. However the whole situation is dynamic and could shift again soon.

I wanted to write an explainer piece about what’s going on in Kenya, and reached out to a few people to solicit their insight. One contact, a coffee farmer, sent back a letter sharing their views on the situation.

My piece is still in progress, but for now I would like to share this farmer’s perspective directly on a topic that seems to have mostly been ignored by the wider coffee industry.

I will say up front that this is their perspective alone, and they have asked for anonymity in case of “any potential backlash from those who might not appreciate my candid views.”

I am a Kenyan farmer in my mid-thirties, hailing from the coffee-rich region of central Kenya. I am proud to be the third generation in my family to engage in coffee farming.

I want to shed light on a sentiment that resonates among many coffee farmers, not only in Kenya but globally. Contrary to what some may assume, coffee farmers are far from ignorant when it comes to the intricacies of our trade. We are well-versed in the complexities of the business, from the cost of production to the labyrinth of political rhetoric.

One issue that often bewilders us is the apparent contradiction in government policies. How can a government claim to support its coffee farmers when it simultaneously imposes taxes on essential farming inputs? This conundrum becomes even more perplexing when we see the same government grappling with mounting debts.

In essence, I wish to emphasize that coffee farmers are not passive recipients of aid or oblivious to the challenges we face. We are informed, insightful, and committed to our trade. We yearn for practical, sustainable solutions that will genuinely uplift the industry rather than mere political rhetoric.

On behalf of the countless farmers who have had the privilege of working alongside various organizations in the coffee sector, I wish to extend a heartfelt apology to the firms that were recently labeled as "cartels" by Governor Cecily Mbarire. While no organization is without its imperfections, these companies have played a crucial role in supporting coffee farmers through a multitude of challenges.

One of the notable contributions of these organizations is their provision of vital agrochemical services to farmers. These services have been instrumental in improving crop yields and ensuring the health of our coffee plants. Additionally, these firms have provided essential cash advances, enabling farmers to sustain their production processes even in challenging times.

It's worth mentioning the compassionate role they've played beyond the fields. These organizations have been a lifeline, helping to cover hospital bills when farmers or their families face health emergencies. They've also stepped in to support education by assisting with school fees for our children, ensuring a brighter future for the next generation.

Governor Mbarire's reference to these licensed entities as "cartels" is not only inaccurate but also unfairly defamatory. While there may be room for improvement in the sector, it's essential to recognize and appreciate the positive impact these organizations have had on the lives of countless farmers.

Then there are the recent developments in the coffee sector, particularly the government's decision to cancel licenses of various stakeholders. While I acknowledge the government's authority to take action against those who fail to comply with regulations, I believe that such actions should be taken with careful consideration of the consequences, especially for farmers like me.

The abrupt cancellation of licenses for marketers, millers, and other stakeholders without a clear plan for where farmers will sell their coffee is nothing short of disastrous for us. This situation has already begun to impact farmers, particularly those in regions like Meru, lower Eastern (Machakos and Makueni), Rift Valley, and Central Kenya who are dealing with early crops. The coffee remains unsold, leading to a drop in quality, and if the instability at the auction persists, it could result in unsold coffee, which would be a significant loss for farmers.

Moreover, there's a real concern that if this delay continues and coffee from the Mount Kenya region enters the market alongside coffee from other areas, buyers may prioritize the Mount Kenya coffee due to its perceived higher quality. This could further disadvantage farmers from other regions.

In my case, as a farmer from Kirinyaga, the closure of the auction directly affects me. I rely on selling my early crop at the auction to secure the finances needed to process the bulk of my coffee during the main crop season. The disruption caused by the license cancellations puts a strain on my livelihood and the livelihoods of many others like me.

I would like to urge the government to reconsider its approach in this matter. Rather than direct interference, it would be more beneficial for all parties involved if the government assumes a regulatory role, ensuring that the sector operates smoothly and fairly. This approach would better support the interests of coffee farmers and the sustainability of the industry.

Our region (Kirinyaga and part of Embu) is experiencing extreme cold weather, with temperatures plummeting to as low as 7 degrees Celsius. This unseasonable weather has left our coffee crops vulnerable to the relentless onslaught of coffee berry disease, which is wreaking havoc on our precious berries.

One of the solutions to combat this disease is Copper oxychloride, a vital fungicide. However, the price of this essential agricultural input has doubled recently. The increased cost of this fungicide, coupled with rising expenses in other areas, is placing an enormous burden on farmers like me. What troubles me even more is the disconnect between these so-called reformists and the daily struggles that farmers face. They often lack the perspective of the heartache that comes with losing a crop, the sleepless nights worrying about financial burdens, or the desperate attempts to protect our livelihoods.

I implore the government to step in and assist farmers in adapting to the ever-changing climate conditions. It's crucial that they take action to caution us against the high prices of agricultural inputs, including fungicides like Copper oxychloride. Furthermore, the skyrocketing cost of labor, which has doubled in the last year, is an issue that cannot be ignored.

Lastly, the government's approach to compensating farmers through taxes raises serious concerns. We need practical, sustainable solutions that address the root causes of our challenges rather than relying on short-term fixes funded by taxes.

It's my hope that the government will recognize the importance of supporting farmers in these trying times, allowing us to continue nurturing the agricultural backbone of our nation.

Kwa Dhati (Sincerely)

Mkulima mwenye wasiwsi (A Concerned Farmer)

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