Back when I was young, there was a plant that I hated with all my might — coffee. To this day, I still harbour a phobia about that evergreen shrub although, to be sure, I have no qualms about enjoying a mugful of its product now and then when the old brain cells require a stimulant.
Anyway, the reason I loathed coffee bushes was their red berries that made my life miserable for two long seasons every year, fruits that I had to pluck for eight hours every Saturday and sometimes every Wednesday too. As a lad, that was perhaps the only time I wished I was in school.
I am sure many youth in coffee-growing areas went through the same experience, but not all were motivated by the same expectation of gratification in the end. Some were forced by circumstances to work as casuals in huge coffee plantations because that was the only way they could supplement the family income. At the end of the day, they got paid according to the amount of berries they would pick.
However, there were those who were “unlucky” to work in their own shambas and did not expect any sort of payment. They felt cheated, for they could not buy sweets or mandazi on their way home like their pals would. So, in essence, those from a poor background whose parents did not own coffee bushes considered themselves rich, while those from relatively rich backgrounds whose parents owned a few hundred coffee trees considered themselves poor indeed. It was ironic.
I was born in the latter group. My parents cultivated a few acres of coffee and the drudgery was unimaginable. It was only in later life that I was to realise just how fortunate my family was. My old man was a teacher all his working life — which spanned more than 50 years — and there was not much money in it. For a very long time, teachers earned peanuts and there was no way they could educate their offspring unless they supplemented their income through farming, the only side-hustle they were allowed.
So we youngsters had to work on the farm whenever we were not at school, come rain or shine. And this is the literal truth; we had to pick coffee, sort it, pack it, take it to the milling factory many kilometres away, oftentimes on our backs, weigh it, and then trudge home for the only meal of the day — boiled maize and beans with a dab of fat and a potato or two to make it at least palatable.
Coffee was no respecter of weather conditions or seasons. The most bountiful season was during the November-December period at the height of the short rains. December also happens to be the month with the highest number of national and religious holidays, which too often fell on Fridays or Saturdays.
I remember that on two successive Christmases, I was to spend the entire eve and the festive day itself at the factory waiting to weigh the berries, which task could not be accomplished before 3pm.
But as we grew older, we were to realise that without coffee, we would never have gone to school. My siblings and I owe every opportunity that later came our way to that shrub. However, things were to get so bad that the crop would completely lose meaning to all those who depended on it for their livelihood. Most of the earnings from the crop would be stolen from farmers by cartels at the top of the processing chain before brokers and factory managers pilfered the rest. That was when the uprooting began.
But the rot had begun earlier. Before 1993, small-scale farmers had been making a reasonable living from their produce. Not only were they getting subsidised inputs from the then vibrant Kenya Planters Co-operative Union through co-operative societies, they were also getting loans from the Co-operative Bank to help them run the farms. However, with the liberalisation measures imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s, independent millers took over and started dictating how much the growers would be paid.
Coupled with hitherto unprecedented price volatility in the international market and the vagaries of the weather, this had a deleterious effect on the marketing of coffee for small-scale farmers and their investments plunged into unsustainable losses. Whereas earlier, a farmer with 500 trees could feed, clothe and educate his family, he could no longer do so. Many farmers, therefore, decided to uproot their coffee trees and venture into alternatives.
Whether the sector ever recovers from the doldrums is not easy to predict, but that is where new Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya comes in. I have refrained from commenting on the other sectors like tea, dairy, sugar or rice simply because I don’t know enough about them, but they all seem to be stuck in the same rut. It is the hope of every farmer that Mr Munya will do the seemingly impossible: resuscitate the whole industry. The measures he has announced so far are highly encouraging.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]