Why it’s too early to write off coffee as a top income earner

Sunday December 17 2017

A farmers tends her coffee trees in Nyeri County. The harvesting season is at its peak. PHOTO | correspondent

A farmers tends her coffee trees in Nyeri County. The harvesting season is at its peak. PHOTO | correspondent 

By MUCHEMI WACHIRA
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Every morning, George Kamau wakes up to tend to his coffee farm before carrying out any other business.

He makes sure the trees are free from diseases and pests before joining his wife in their retail shop. The kiosk is located at the edge of his one-acre farm that borders the busy Karatina-Sagana Road.

It a busy shop where residents of Gichatha-ini village in Nyeri County and travellers buy provisions. But, as Kamau points out, the business is sustained by proceeds from his coffee.

He has planted 300 coffee trees that occupy almost the entire farm — leaving only a quarter of an acre where he has built the shop and his residential house on the other end.

“Coffee farming has been my main source of livelihood since 1987. I have educated my three children — two of whom have completed college education and are formally employed, using coffee earnings. My last born will be completing high school next year,” the 52-year-old farmer told Sunday Nation in an interview at his farm.

He said that he left school in 1983 after completing his form four and immediately embarked on coffee farming after inheriting the land from his father. He has never sought any other employment.

Coffee is the lifeline of most people in Gichatha-ini and other neighbouring villages in Mathira East sub-county.

When growers in other parts of Nyeri are abandoning the cash crop — replacing it with other crops or uprooting their coffee trees — farmers in this sub-county are busy improving their production.

And they have been smiling all the way to the bank as quality beans fetch good prices in the market.

At Gichatha-ini Factory, which is affiliated to Gikanda Co-operative Society, growers received Sh100.80 for every kilogramme of coffee cherries delivered in the 2016/2017 season.

But the highest paid farmers are their neighbours, who deliver their produce to Ndaro-ini Coffee Factory. They received Sh109 for every kilogramme. Kangocho Coffee Factory, paid members Sh100.40.

Mr Kamau harvested slightly more than 2,0000kg of coffee cherries, taking home Sh200,000-plus. His expenses were not more than Sh50,000.

“I managed to buy a good motorcycle which I am now using to transport goods to my shop from Karatina Town,” says the grower who had been hiring transport before.
The 3,084 members of Gikanda Co-operative Society are among the few growers who say growing coffee is rewarding.

Thousands of other farmers have replaced coffee with other crops, despite Kenyan cherries being highly sought globally. Yet other farmers have remained hopeful that one day, a farmer-friendly Government will weed out mafia-like cartels that commandeer the coffee marketing chain.

This is the narrative that farmers at Gikanda have decided to discard. “There is money in coffee and we can attest to this. Those who say the business is not well paying are those who have lived with the hope that the Government will one day break the barrier for coffee money to start flowing to their doorsteps. This will never happen!” said the chairman of Gikanda Co-operative Society, Mr Mukuha Chiera. He added that the society is working with farmers to improve the production and quality of coffee.

The society has employed an agronomist who visits members’ farms in a motorcycle, instructing them on the right inputs to apply and methods of good crop husbandry.
Gikanda Co-operative Society coffee has been certified by two international firms — Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade International.

The two firms audit the society’s coffee annually. Every farmer in the society has to meet the standards required for certification, which they have all committed themselves to comply with.

“This is what has made our coffee to have demand as buyers look for certified produce,” Mr Chiera explains. He adds that last season they sold some coffee directly, which explains the good prices.

Direct sale is the second system the Government introduced in 2003 as an alternative to the Nairobi Coffee Auction.

“When the coffee volume is big, the pay is also good,” an official of the Coffee Directorate said in reference to Gikanda Co-operative Society.

At least eight farmers at Gikanda registered over 10,000kg of cherries in the last season with the highest, who had 20,0000kg, earning more than Sh2 million.

In the previous season, the society paid its members an average of Sh74 per kilogram of cherry, with the highest taking home Sh81. Payment has always been good even in the preceding seasons.

There are hopes that payments will improve in 2017/2018 season after the society secured both a milling licence and a growers’ marketing licence.

Mr Kamau’s neighbour, Salome Wacheke, 62, has less than an acre of land where she has planted only 100 coffee trees. Her land is hilly on one end that borders a stream. And at the close of the hill is a flood plain where she plants arrowroots, kales and other vegetables.

Arrowroots, according to her, fetch better prices than coffee. But their market is not predictable.
Gikanda’s story is not isolated. In the same county there’s Barichu and Gachatha Co-operative societies, and two others in neighbouring Kirinyaga County. These are Mutira and Baragwi co-operative societies.