Whereas many are shunning coffee production, citing the many challenges facing the industry, Nyawira Njiraini from Mutira in Kerugoya, sees things differently.
The 30-year-old Information Technology graduate has chosen to stick with the cash crop whose fortunes keep dwindling.
Her peers and age-mates see little value in coffee farming and agriculture in general. Many inherit their parents’ lands, dividing them into small portions and sell the plots for quick cash.
Nyawira’s coffee journey began in 2011 when she graduated from Kenyatta University. She remained in Nairobi and unsuccessfully looked for a job that matched her area of study.
When everything — including starting a computer business and consequently getting swindled — appeared to hit a snag, she went to her rural home in Kirinyaga to help her mother Florence Karambu Njiraini run the farm.
She initially just grew vegetables on small plots, kept quail and reared rabbits.
In 2015, her mother was among the winners in the National Farmers Awards scheme, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Elgon Kenya Ltd.
“I was surprised when my mother won the award, which came with accolades and cash. I thought I could also achieve the feat,” she said.
Nyawira took a more serious approach in farming. To get her going, her mother gave her 220 Ruiru 11 and Batian coffee stems. She intercropped her coffee with thorn melons.
Nyawira says she did some research on better yielding, marketable and more resilient varieties and found out that Batian had the qualities.
She is a member of Mutira Farmers Co-operative Society, which has been important in identifying and helping them access premium markets.
GOOD AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES
The cooperative, which was formed in the 1950s, specialises in processing cherry, marketing its members’ produce and helping in the acquisition of inputs, certified seedlings. It also advances loans to members, Mutira co-op Secretary-General Bonface Muchiri said.
Muchiri admits that Kenya’s coffee industry faces many challenges, including fluctuating prices, unpredictable climate, insufficient funding, poor infrastructure in key growing areas, and worn out processing machines.
“A majority of farmers are elderly and are reluctant to embrace new varieties that are high yielding,” said Muchiri.
The co-op is among those working with Fairtrade, an agency that helps growers get better prices for their produce. It also promotes better social and environmental standards.
“Certified coffee organisations are certain to receive premium prices. This aims to cover the cost of production and acts as a safety net when prices fall below sustainable levels. They also receive additional Fairtrade premiums to invest in their business,” said Kelvin Muhia, a business development adviser at Fairtrade, Eastern and Central Africa Network.
Farmers are trained on good agriculture practices as well as minimal use of chemicals.
The Fairtrade standards incorporate socio-economic and environmental criteria and contain development requirements aimed at improvements for producers and communities.
“Dealers are also covered by the standards, emphasising the commitments companies and businesses must make to contribute to sustainability in their supply chains and operations,” Muhia said.
He adds that high-yielding varieties ensure success of any small-scale coffee venture.
“Other than Batian and Ruiru 11, a farmer can grow the Ruiru grafted variety, which integrates the best qualities of Batian and Ruiru 11,” he said.
Francis Murimi, an agronomist, says to grow coffee, land should be prepared during the dry season.
The holes — 23 by 23 inches — are dug in rows two metres apart with the plants being one-and-a-half metres apart, and manure added into them.
REMAINING LOYAL TO COFFEE FARMING
Planting should be at the onset of rains. Windbreakers and shade trees are grown in the farm. Maintenance practices include using the appropriate fertiliser and foliar.
“Pruning should be done to maintain the correct balance between leaf area and the crop, prevent dieback, reduce the biennial bearing and maintain good tree shape,” Murimi said.
Training of the coffee trees which involves the trees’ growth being directed to a preferred shape and form, is also essential.
Coffee tree training ensures more sunlight and air is allowed to get to the centre of the tree. This exposes maximum leaf surface to the sun. It directs the growth of the tree so that traditional processes like spraying and harvesting are done with ease.
It also protects the tree from sunburn and wind damage and secures a balanced distribution of fruit-bearing parts.
Martin Kinyua, another agronomist, says thrips, berry borers, berry moths, yellow-headed and white-headed borers, antestia bugs and leaf skeletonisers are the major pests that attack coffee bushes.
“Coffee berry disease, coffee leaf rust and furasium wilt are the main diseases the crop faces,” he added.
Coffee requires a stress period of about two months. Harvesting can begin three to four years after planting.
It involves picking only the ripe red cherries, with the cycle repeated every 10 days, depending on the altitude of the area of production and variety.
Urging more young people to embrace coffee farming, Nyawira hires 10 casual labourers during harvest and says she gets at least 10 kilogrammes of cherries per stem.
Her target is above 30kg as she has adopted recommendations of Fairtrade standards.
She adds that market assurance by Fairtrade has been the driving force behind her remaining loyal to coffee.
From the proceeds of coffee, Nyawira has bought more land in the area.
She expects to continue increasing acreage under coffee.