On August 15, a gang of 30 men invaded Ndia-ini coffee factory in Nyeri and stole 50 bags of coffee. But they also had time to slaughter chickens, fry them and boil rice to eat as accompaniment despite police being less than a kilometre away.
The news trended the whole day. But for farmers in central, it was no laughing matter.
This is because they have lost more than 1,000 bags of the produce to a cartel of thieves who seem well organised, and who are striking fear in villages and leaving a stinging aroma on the nostrils of farmers. There have been more than 27 break-ins in coffee factories in Nyeri, Kirinyaga and Murang’a this year.
Growers have had to absorb the loss of about 50,000 kilogrammes worth an estimated Sh50 million.
The thefts are also carried out in a similar fashion; a gang breaks into a building, ties up the guards and proceeds to parchment stores for tonnes of the loot.
They also normally target the expensive P1s and P2 parchment. Also, in all the break-ins, only watchmen have been arrested and no major suspect that can unravel the crime syndicate has been apprehended. Farmers and insurance companies thus end up at a loss.
So, who is stealing the black gold, where is it being sold and who are the major beneficiaries?
An investigation by the Sunday Nation revealed a complex web that points to complicity by the police, culpability by society officials, private estates and millers, and inaction by government regulatory agencies. The parties are involved in a blame game that only serves to embolden coffee thieves and entrench a sense of hopelessness in the sector.
“This is deep. It is a collusion of factory officials, police and coffee cartels,” noted Mukurwe-ini MP Kabando wa Kabando, whose constituency has borne the brunt of the thefts.
The theft at Kagere factory in Nyeri is a good example of buck-passing and collusion. On February 3, managers at Kagere factory reported that coffee had been stolen. When police carried out an audit at the factory, they concluded that no coffee was stolen. In fact, they said the factory had excess coffee in store, more than it had declared.
126 BAGS STOLEN
But the factory manager, Joseph Gakuo, insists that 126 bags of coffee were stolen.
“The results of the police audit have been manipulated by both police and people operating from inside the factory,” he said.
But Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho dismisses the claim that police are culpable.
“What is happening in Central is not robbery. It is fraud. Coffee society officials are sometimes stealing or hiding the coffee and then reporting it as stolen,” said Mr Kibicho.
But since February, no factory manager or senior officials whom police accuse of the theft have been arrested or charged. Even in the Kagere case which police concluded was an inside job.
“The file was forwarded to the DPP and, once directions are given, we will take the management to court,” said former Mukurwe-ini police boss Jonathan Muli, who led the probe.
“It is a process. We are law enforcers and due process is being followed,” added Dr Kibicho on being asked why it has taken six months for the due process to be complete.
“There are police roadblocks everywhere. How does coffee move from one area to another at midnight?” asks Nyeri Town MP Esther Murugi.
Police also accuse factory managers of not seeking their services when they have coffee in factories.
“The police charge Sh500 per head and we store coffee for over six months to give it time for pulping and drying. We have three factories. The total comes to almost Sh1 million yet we have debts to pay. Why can’t police guard for free or patrol factories the way they patrol Karatina town for free?” asks Gikanda Coffee Society chairman Joseph Mukuha.
Factory and society managers absolved themselves from blame, saying they have no capacity to carry out such crime nor do they have a market for stolen coffee. Instead, they blame millers and private estates for the theft.
“If this is an inside job, how come no manager has been charged over the thefts? The so-called inside job is a crime like any other,” said Barichu Society chairman Wachira Wamwago, who is also a former chairman of the Coffee Board of Kenya. The society’s two factories have been broken into and more than 50 bags stolen.
According to societies, most stolen coffee is in parchment form. This means it has to be taken to millers for milling and a movement permit is needed to transport the coffee or for it to be accepted for milling. Outside the societies, only millers and private estates have such permits, which are now being issued by county governments.
“Some private coffee estates may deliver more produce to millers than they produce. Where do they get the extra coffee?” asks Mr Wamwago. There are over 60 private estates and two millers in Nyeri.
Any farm with more than five acres under cultivation is eligible to be registered as an estate and can pulp coffee and sell directly to millers without going through a cooperative society.
“It is easy to catch the thieves. A thorough audit of records of private estates can show their production capacity vis a vis the amount they delivered to millers. If an estate has 600 bushes each producing a possible maximum of 20kg, it should deliver 12,000kg to millers. Any excess delivery should be questioned,” said Mr Wamwago.
Mr Mukuha also asks that millers’ records be scrutinised to find out the sources of parchment they mill. Due to low production and increasing competition, millers are facing a shortage of the commodity and are under pressure to supply their markets.
“Some private millers claim to have coffee estates but do not grow a single coffee tree. Where does their produce come from?” asks Mutheka co-operative society chairman, Githae Hunyu, a former under-secretary.
UNWILLING TO TAKE ACTION
But millers under the Kenya Coffee Traders Association vice-chairman Dirk Sickmueller said none of their members are involved in such malpractices.
“Some of our members have sister companies that grow coffee like Sasini so it is not a surprise when they mill their own coffee. We provide comprehensive reports on a monthly basis to the regulator and can track any coffee sold – from the farmer to the consumer,” said Mr Sickmueller.
KCTA lays the blame for the coffee theft squarely on the police and regulator, the coffee directorate under the Agriculture and Food Authority.
“Our members do ethical business. But there are undesirable elements within the sector. The coffee directorate knows it but is unwilling to take action. It does not help that corruption has permeated our police and judiciary. The buck stops with the regulator and it should take action,” said Mr Sickmueller.
“We also need an audit of all cases of stolen coffee in the past, especially where truckloads of coffee have been confiscated by the police, detailing who was involved and the action taken. That trail leads to the right place,” he added.
But the head of coffee directorate Kiplimo Melli said coffee thefts are security issues that should be dealt with by police at the local level.
“From Nairobi all we can do is to write a letter telling farmers to secure their coffee,” Mr Melli said. The directorate devolved issuance of movement permits to counties and most have not yet enacted laws to issue them. They are instead issuing movement security forms, which any organisation can access, fill and move their coffee without much scrutiny. KCTA said the thieves are targeting the weakest link in the chain after millers and warehouse operators tightened security.
“Ten years ago, green coffee trucked to Mombasa was being stolen from containers. When security was tightened, they moved to commercial licensed warehouses located in Nairobi but new IT and surveillance systems were installed at a great cost to secure these premises. Criminals now find the upcountry society factories to be the easiest targets. They also need to beef up security.”
As the regulators, police and managers pass the buck, coffee farmers continue to pay for their incompetence.
Additional reporting by Muchiri Gitonga