Coffee growing in Kenya

by JulieCraves on March 30, 2008

Kenyan coffees are distinctive in (at least) two ways.  They have a unique, wine-like flavor, and they are produced and marketed under a government-controlled auction system. Samples are available to bidders prior to the weekly auction, and the highest bidder gets the lot. This means quality is rewarded, and the careful consumer can also be rewarded with great coffee.

Most coffee in Kenya is grown on small farms, organized into co-ops. According to the Coffee Board of Kenya, as of 2005 there were 700,000 smallholders organized into nearly 600 co-ops, and nearly 3300 estates of 2 to 20 ha each. This plethora of tiny plots makes it difficult for consumers to pinpoint the source of their Kenyan coffee, which is often only labeled as “AA” — the highest grade sold at auction. Sometimes it may be labeled with a regional, estate, or co-op name, but finding information on these is nearly impossible for the average consumer. It has only been recently that direct relationships between growers and roasters has been allowed, and the information specialty roasters provide on their producers is a welcome source of crucial information for consumers.

The primary growing regions (included on the map) are those surrounding Mt. Kenya (Nyeri, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Embu and Meru), Nakuru, Machakos, and Kiambu (mostly estates, includes towns and coffees labeled Ruiru, Thika, Juja and Makuyu).

Biodiversity in coffee areas
Some of these areas coincide with biodiversity hotspots. Mount Kenya is considered an Important Bird Area, and agricultural expansion and intensification is considered an important threat. The Kenya Mountains are also classified as an important Endemic Bird Area, with seven of the nine restricted range species being found on Mt. Kenya.

Forest covers only less than 2% of the land area in Kenya (around 5% counting modified forests), a loss of 80% of its original extent. These montane forests, in addition to being critical for birds and wildlife, are equally important to people: the forests on Mt. Kenya feed rivers that supply 40 to 50% of the country’s fresh water, which also produce 70% of its hydroelectric power. Around 8% of Kenya’s land is arable, and 4% of that is planted in coffee. Farmers of all types have been using more water for irrigation, creating shortages downstream.

I was frustrated in my attempts to find information on how coffee farming has impacted birds in the country. I was pleased to find a very recent paper on a related topic [1], but was surprised to read “Information on bird communities in Afrotropical agroecosystems is particularly scarce and, to our knowledge, only two studies have been conducted in eastern Africa.” I have no direct information, then, on how coffee growing has influenced biodiversity in Kenya. Coffee is obviously an important crop, grown in sensitive areas that are facing numerous pressures.

Environmental sustainability
The coffee varieties grown in Kenya are often Bourbon types with alpha-numerical names, all beginning “SL”. This stands for Scott Laboratories, the developer of the strains (SL28 and SL34 are high-quality names you may have heard). Despite the Bourbon heritage, usually a shade grown variety, most Kenyan coffee is grown in sun. The climate in the Kenyan highlands (cooler temperatures, humidity, even rainfall) often makes shade unnecessary. However, many farms did have shade trees, which were removed when coffee prices dropped in the 1980s and 1990s with the hope of increased yields. As we know, sun coffee requires more chemical inputs, and these expenses hampered rather than helped small farmers. Some are now replanting their shade trees. Photos of estates that I have seen, though, appear to still be acres of sun coffee, and look as if they have little or no habitat for native species.

There isn’t much certified organic coffee from Kenya. Although many small farmers can’t afford chemicals and may be passive organic, much of Kenya’s coffee is doused with pesticides [2]. And, given the pooled system, any untreated coffee will be mixed with chemically-grown coffee, and it will be nearly impossible to know what is what. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this isn’t much of a risk to consumers, but harms the environment and the farmers themselves.

Most estates use pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. I saw a slide in a presentation by the Coffee Board of Kenya shows the essentials of planting out young coffee trees: top soil, sub soil, manure, and furadan (carbofuran). Yikes!  Coffee rust (Hemileia vastarix) is a common problem, and is treated with copper fungicides; copper builds up in soils after years of treatment. This can create toxic levels in other food crops planted with the coffee [3]. Pesticides have also been found in water supplies in coffee-growing communities [4].

I often feel uncertain considering coffee from Kenya, and my research hasn’t clarified too much for me. I certainly recommend avoiding generic “Kenya AA” coffee, and those grown on estates. Look for Kenyan coffee labeled with the name of a cooperative, not just a regional name. Even better, aim for a micro-lot or sub-lot of coffee from a particular cooperative; these will sometimes be labeled with the name of the co-op, and an auction lot number, or the co-op and the “factory” name (the mill or what would be called the beneficio in Spanish). Counter Culture Coffee has offerings such as this, and product descriptions include a link to a Google Map of the source.

With the liberalization of the Kenyan coffee market, more and more specialty roasters are buying small lots directly from farmers, often providing detailed information on the farms. This is a terrific best option. The only single-farm source I’ve seen is from Terroir Coffee Company — Mamuto Farm from the Kirinyaga region. It got an incredible — and well-deserved — 97 points from Coffee Review. It is one the best coffees I have ever tasted, and there is a link in the description to farm photos.

I’m excited about seeing more direct trade relationships between Kenyan farmers and roasters. It will vastly improve transparency, has the potential for really improving the lives of the farmers, and gives consumers a chance to motivate and encourage the production of coffee grown with fewer chemicals in conditions that favor the return of biodiversity to their land.

[1] Laube, I., N. Breitbach, and K. Bohning-Gaese. 2008. Avian diversity in a Kenyan agroecosystem: effects of habitat structure and proximity to forest. Journal of Ornithology 149:181-191.

[2] Nyambo, B. T., D. M. Masaba, and G. J. Hakiza. 1996. Integrated pest management of coffee for small-scale farmers in East Africa: needs and limitations. Integrated Pest Management Reviews 1(3):125-132.

[3] Loland, J., and B. R. Singh. 2004. Copper contamination of soil and vegetation in coffee orchards after long-term use of Cu fungicides. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 69:203-211.

[4] Mwanthi, M. W. 1998. Occurrence of three Pesticides in community water supplies, Kenya. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 60:601-608.

Photo by 60mls; thanks for publishing under a Creative Commons license.

Revised on November 24, 2020

Posted in Coffee regions

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