National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi has directed a parliamentary committee to thoroughly investigate the Coffee Research Institute (CRI) and recommend measures to save the industry from collapse.
The House Committee on Agriculture and Livestock will undertake the probe at the institute previously known as the Coffee Research Foundation (CRF).
The directive came after Tongaren member of Parliament Dr Eseli Simiyu said urgent action needs to be taken to save the industry from "total collapse".
A visibly upset Muturi wondered why the committee had not cared to address the long-standing issues at the CRI as the industry is one of Kenya's leading foreign exchange earners.
“Naturally, I expect the committee to know its mandate. It is not just about importation of sugar and other commodities. This is your mandate,” Mr Mutua said in reference to the bungled probe in 2018 into importation of poisonous sugar.
According to Dr Eseli, the CRI has become an "eyesore" as its own coffee is seriously blighted by the berry disease.
“I had a chance to visit recently. It is a shame. It looked like a ghost estate where nothing goes on. That is very dangerous. You cannot find employees. They go months without salaries,” he said.
The Tongaren MP, a coffee farmer, noted that when he tried to inquire about the situation at CRI, he was informed that staff salaries “are so delayed” and that they do not have materials to run the institution.
“They do not even have the chemicals to spray [to fight] the coffee berry disease. They are the ones required to produce seedlings but they are not producing any."
The institute is recognised worldwide and has bagged accolades in the field of research on varieties including Ruiru 11 and Batian.
However, the country faces the ignominy of losing this and other developments in the industry, which is dangerous for Kenya’s agri-based economy.
A government document released in 2018 showed Kenya’s coffee production had declined from 130,000 tonnes in 1988 to 45,000 tonnes in the 2016/17 season.
That was the amount in the latter season despite recommendation of far-reaching measures to revive and improve the sector by a task force President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed in 2016.
The Speaker said, “I give directions that the committee will extract what has been stated by Hon. Eseli and use it to visit the institute to investigate what is ailing it and bring a report."
But even as the Speaker directed the investigations, Agriculture Principal Secretary Mr Hamadi Boga admitted before a parliamentary committee that the problems at the institute are the result of lack of funding from the government.
“The institute’s funding came from levies that we collected but we no longer collect them as they were stopped,” Mr Boga told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The issues at the institute come as coffee growing spreads to parts of the country where land is available - North Rift, South Rift and parts of Western Kenya.
Smallholder farmers who form the bulk of coffee producers have been affected most.
In parts of Central Kenya, where most of the country’s coffee is grown, farmers uprooted the crop in favour of the construction industry due to poor returns and delays in payment, with waiting times of up to a year.
Though the task-force report indicated that Kenya’s coffee production declined in the past five years, regional countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda recorded great improvement in both production and quality of coffee beans.
While Kenya had the lowest growth in the region, at 3.2 percent, Uganda had the highest at 36 percent and was followed by Rwanda at 17.6 percent and Ethiopia at 16.3 percent.