Coffee farming in Kenya has emerged as a case study in the way small-holder incomes are being slashed through poor knowledge and poor management, with an ongoing four-year coffee initiative targeted at 50,000 smallholders having already raised farmers’ incomes by as much as four-fold, on simple measures of coffee handling and financial transparency.
Funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Technoserve run project is currently working with 31 coffee cooperatives in Eastern, Western, Central and Rift Valley regions, from an initial eight when it started in 2007. Technoserve is training factory workers on processing and handling procedures to produce high quality coffee. The initiative is also focused on increasing the financial transparency that has often been lacking in coffee cooperatives in Kenya.
From the beginning, Technoserve requires the management to guarantee access to past and present books of account, “to know what they paid the farmers,” said Wycliffe Murwayi, a Field Operational Officer for Technoserve. Farmers, in groups of 25 to 30, are also being taught basic book keeping to aid them in managing farm expenditures and incomes.
The need for the coffee initiative, according to Murwayi, was to fill the gap left after the government stopped providing skilled extension officers to cooperatives. In the 70s and early 80s when there was a coffee boom, the officers taught factory staff and farmers the right berries to pick and how to manage the primary processing stages. That includes gauging the right moisture content as coffee is being dried to prevent spoilage. “We have given cooperatives moisture meters for that,” said Murwayi.
Technoserve is also encouraging farmers to hold cooperative elections regularly as a way of cleaning up rogue governance. “Some have never held elections in 10 years,” said Murwayi. This can create situations where finances can be misappropriated from the cooperatives’ coffers.
Some of the cooperatives that have adopted these standards have received International Certification for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). They have also paid their farmers the Government’s benchmark of 80 percent of the income generated, while the rest goes to running of cooperatives.
There are also now some factories paying farmers more than 80 percent following from the success in raising quality coffee production.
In the 70s and 80s coffee produced in Kenya was grade 1 or 2, but due to years of neglect the majority of farmers today are producing grades 3 and 4. “The biggest area farmers are losing out on is quality,” said Murwayi. Grade 1 coffee is twice the price of Grade 4.
From this initiative there have been two particular success stories. Ritho Cooperative in Kiambu was paying their farmers Sh15 to Sh20 per kilogram as it joined the scheme. On the second year of the project they paid them Sh45 to Sh50.
However, Iriga Cooperative in Meru has had the most success in the past year’s coffee season, paying farmers Sh77 per kilogram. “We foresee a hundred shillings per kilogram,” said a beaming Murwayi. Their coffee is graded at 3.
The downside to the early success in improving pricing on processing and co-operative management, has been that many farmers were not delivering large quantities of coffee, limiting the gains to their incomes. Yet by being paid at these rates, farmers are now seeing the possibilities and taking time to better manage their bushes to increase their yields per acre.
Yields currently vary hugely across the nation’s coffee sector. An acre of coffee land on average has 500 trees. The average yield today across the country is 1 to 2 kilograms per tree per year. That translates to 500kgs or 1000kg per acre. Yet smallholders who are tending their bushes well are getting 5 kilograms per tree per year. And commercial companies are getting 10kgs per tree by investing in technology, professional management and inputs that up yields.
In Rwanda, where Technoserve has a similar project coffee yields have risen by 30 per cent countrywide.
Kenya has 300 coffee cooperatives and Technoserve is actively recruiting more cooperatives to work with, although it specifies that it favours larger co-operatives, as these benefit more farmers, and that it also matters how a cooperative is paying its farmers. It gives priority to cooperatives that are paying lower rates per kilograms than those who are paying farmers, as it is these groups where the gains can be most quickly achieved.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
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