Nyeri Governor Nderitu Gachagua was educated on coffee proceeds, as he once said, and for him, the fight for better earnings for farmers was personal.
The governor, who died on Saturday, will be remembered as a man who tried to take head-on coffee cartels when he introduced an initiative to jointly mill and market the produce from Nyeri.
In 2014, when 106 coffee factories in Nyeri supported a call by the governor, this proved a very challenging task given that the industry has been dominated by international dealers since pre-independence days.
“Since we produce speciality coffee, we were entitled to at least $1 (Sh103) per kilo of cherry due to the high quality. That is what I was fighting for,” said Mr Gachagua in an earlier interview.
His idea was that coffee farmers in Nyeri would stop selling their produce to private millers and instead channel their produce through Kenya Co-operative Coffee Exporters, which would sell directly to buyers in Europe and other new markets.
Through this method, Nyeri coffee would bypass the Nairobi Coffee Exchange and middlemen, and fetch better prices.
According to Mr Gachagua, the aim of the reforms was to ensure that Nyeri farmers benefit from high world coffee prices.
Immediately he started implementing his idea, protests erupted with some farmers and leaders pouring cold water on the governor’s joint coffee marketing strategy.
At one point, there were claims that Nyeri coffee was rotten and not traceable to the respective societies, ostensibly because it was poorly stored.
The governor said local cartels had blocked Nyeri coffee from accessing the market by claiming that it had been contracted to them.
The adverse campaign was staged both locally and internationally, and the breaking point came on March 24, 2014 when the national government intervened.
This prevent Nyeri coffee from accessing the market for four months, leading to loss of opportunity when prices were at their peak.
According to Coffee Review, an online publication that analyses the quality of coffee globally, in its 2016 world’s best speciality coffee producers report, it noted that Kenya had continued to produce some of the world’s most elegant and distinctive coffees despite growers discontent and urban encroachment on prime coffee lands.
Among the top 30 speciality coffee producers of the world in 2016 were Gatomboya, Karindundu and Ichamara coffee factories in Nyeri, Guama coffee factory in Kirinyaga, and Murang’a Gondo factory.
Coffee Review’s report estimated that the price of Guama factory’s coffee, which produced the best product in the world, was at $23.99/12 ounces or $70.5 (Sh7,200) per kilogramme.
Farmers from the factory, which is a member of Baragwi Farmers Co-operative Society, received a pay of only Sh76.05 per kg of cherry delivered during the 2015/2016 crop year, according to the society’s chairman Kimani Gatuguta.
About 85 per cent of Kenya’s coffee is sold overseas through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, a long supply chain that has reduced farmers’ earnings.
Much of the Kenyan coffee is exported as cleaned beans and only five per cent is value-added, causing producers to miss out on the high prices paid for selling roasted and packaged coffee.
Experts claim that if buyers ink direct purchase deals with producers, farmers should expect to earn up to Sh7,000 per bag.