Alex Ochola picks a berry from his coffee plant in Kambi Awendo, Fort Ternan in Muhoroni, looks at it and nods with satisfaction.
“The berries will be ready in a few months’ time but some have been attacked by the coffee berry disease. I expect some good harvest this time round though,” he says as he moves to another plant.
Some years back, Ochola would have been crestfallen walking on his farm. Then, it was hosting sugarcane and despite his crop performing well, Ochola was not reaping much.
“For years, I used to grow sugarcane on my four acres but had nothing to show for it. The crop would do well, then we would take it to Muhoroni factory but the payments would not come.”
At one time when he delivered over 100 tonnes of cane to the miller, he was supposed to be paid Sh280,000, he says.
“I ended up being given Sh200,000 but in bits after making several trips to the factory. Sometimes I would be given less than Sh10,000.”
“Sugarcane farming was so demanding, from planting to payment that you had to literally beg the miller. During planting, we had to beg for seeds and fertiliser, and we would later go and beg even more for payment,” he adds.
But that is in the past. Ochola is now one of the 300 or so farmers growing coffee in the Muhoroni sugar belt.
The region is now littered with acres of coffee bushes as the allure of coffee spreads faster, even as farmers in Central Kenya cite frustrations growing the crop.
“Coffee has brought me joy and hope. I uprooted all my sugarcane to grow 2,000 plants. We are paid between Sh80 and Sh100 per kilo of berries,” says Ochola, a 2002 Bachelor of Science, horticulture graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
SUPPLYING FARMERS WITH COFFEE FARMING INPUTS
Ochola was introduced to coffee sometimes in 2014 by a friend who had ditched cane. He invested Sh200,000, money he got from his savings.
“In my first harvest early in June, I got 3,500kg which I sold for Sh60 per kilo. Next year I am expecting 11,000 kilos from the same farm,” he says, noting he is happy with the returns.
Like other farmers in his region, Ochola plants Batian, a crossbreed of K7 and Ruiru varieties.
“I love the variety because it is high-yielding with deep rooting system which makes it drought resistant. With coffee farming, nothing goes to waste because I also sell the rotten berries (mbuni),” he says, adding that the variety matures in one-and-a-half years. He sells his produce to Sombo Farmers Coffee Cooperative Society.
Coffee, according to Ochola, is profitable because one harvests at least twice a year upon maturity and lasts for over 30 years while cane, one harvests only once after the 18 months wait.
John Martin, the Sombo Cooperative manager, says after collecting berries from farmers, they weigh, shell (peel of the outer cover) after which they ferment them for hours before washing and drying them.
After the drying, the berries are repacked and delivered to Kipkelion Coffee Mill in neighbouring Kericho County. At the mill, they are graded and packed into 60kg packets and transported to Nairobi for auction.
“One of the things we have done to encourage coffee farming in this region is that we give seedlings to farmers, technical advice through farm inspections and the general information on how to manage the coffee bushes, which include pruning and fertiliser application,” says Martin, adding farmers are also given loans which are deducted from their payments.
For a farmer to join the cooperative, one applies to be a member and pays registration fee of Sh1,000 and Sh6,000 to become a shareholder.
“Coffee is one of the best things to happen to the cane farmers. It is paying, it is not time consuming and it is resistant to bad weather,” says Martin.
Jane Wanjiru, who grows 1,000 coffee bushes on four acres in Muhoroni, says she uprooted all her cane to make way for the new crop and does not regret.
HIGH DEMAND ABROAD
“The crop has helped me educate my four children, two of whom are now at the university and two in secondary school. I have bought a car for the family and started a business. I earn enough to keep me going.”
Jacktonne Odhiambo, a former chairman of a sugarcane society, says they are encouraging farmers to get into coffee after the collapse of Muhoroni factory.
“We have crossed the bridge and will not look back,” says Odhiambo, who has planted 1,500 bushes.
The retired accountant says the crop has filled the void left by cane after years of frustrations.
So do the farmers fear the challenges afflicting coffee farmers in central Kenya would catch up with them?
“Right now this is our hope. We are optimistic that even if that will happen, we would have reaped from coffee because currently there is little competition.”
But coffee farming did not start few years ago in the region, some farmers have been growing it for decades. Hezekiah Oluoch, 64, a farmer in Gem Kajulu, Homa Bay County, says he began growing coffee in 1976 and has never stopped.
Oluoch grows 1,800 bushes of Ruiru 11 variety, which he sells to Sori Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society, where it is graded and sold to millers.
“In my last harvest, I made a profit of Sh43,000 out of the 212kg I harvested. I have benefitted so much from coffee that I don’t farm other crops. I am still harvesting the bushes I planted when I started,” says Oluoch, noting over 60 farmers are growing the crop in the region.
LOCALS SHOULD CONSUME MORE COFFEE
Mr Mathew Bore, a technical adviser at Sombo Cooperative, says coffee is profitable because one gets 5kg of berries per bush, with 2,000 trees you end up with 10,000kg.
“If the prices are low and a farmer sells them at Sh40 per kilo for instance, he will get Sh400,000. This is unlike cane where the market is flooded with imports, our coffee is on high demand abroad. So, this is the crop to grow.”
Prof Matthews Dida, a plant breeder at Maseno University, says while the shift to coffee is laudable, the crop has its own challenges.
“We rely a lot on the export market because we do not consume much coffee locally. Once many farmers in western Kenya embrace the crop, production will increase and prices may fall. This is likely to cause frustration,” he says, adding Kenyans should go the Ethiopian way where locals consume a lot of coffee if more regions are to grow the crop profitably.
Agriculture PS Dr Richard Lesiyampe said recently that the government is keen on introducing coffee to other regions. According to the ministry, in 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, new 3,500 hectares of the Batian and Ruiru 11 coffee varieties were planted outside the traditional Mt Kenya region, where the crop is facing a threat from real estate encroachment and new economic ventures such as horticulture.
Additional reporting by Barrack Oduor
- Coffee is the third largest foreign export earning crop, after tea and horticultural produce and supports over 700,000 farmers.
- The crop is famous for its strong and rich flavour and pleasant aroma, preferred by roasters and blenders worldwide.
- The coffee industry has for a while now been floundering in a series of missteps due to mismanagement, corrupt dealings, price dipping and thefts.
- Production has declined, from 130,000 tonnes yearly in 1990’s to 40,000 tonnes in the recent past, with the income also plummeting down to Sh15.18 billion from Sh50.6 billion.
- President Kenyatta recently appointed a task force to look into affairs of the crop for the sector's improvement.