Kenya – The Far End

Part 1 of the Coffee Discovery Series

Kenya_Cupping_KenyaBy Paul Golding

The first visit to a favourite origin is always something of a personal epiphany. Kenya was one such visit for me, when I went with a small industry group to Nairobi in February this year to catch the end of the harvest season. Getting out into the countryside to see the crop and meet the people who produce it can really help shed some light on a coffee’s unique flavour and character.

Our guide on this adventure was Justin Archer of Sangana Commodities, one of the larger exporters in Kenya. He would be hosting us over 2 days, showing us everything from the farms and mills to the auction room and huge shipping warehouses from which the beans are dispatched around the world. I had also heard about a very interesting training project Justin had set up among the small farmer co-ops, and was keen to learn what it was all about….

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Nairobi_Rhinos_Kenya

Leaving Nairobi to the north, the transition into coffee country is startlingly quick. Arabica trees appeared on the sides of the road within 40 minutes of leaving our meeting place in the CBD. We were soon passing farms ranging in size from one hectare to the occasional large estate of several hundred hectares.

Kenya does boast some huge estates, like the giant Socfinaf and Thika properties, but the majority of the coffee comes from small holders, family operations who produce anything from a few bags to a few tons each year. These small operators often join with neighbours to form co-operative groups, pooling their money and resources to build a washing station they can all share at harvest time. Our first stop was one such station, owned by the Ritho Co-Op, members of Justin’s farmer training project. The president of the co-op showed us around the rustic mill and explained the techniques they used. While the station had the usual array of equipment found in most similar sites around the world, the Kenyans have adopted a twist on the normal method of washing coffee. After pulping the cherries with a disc pulper, the coffee is “dry fermented” (meaning piled wet but not submerged) for 15-20 hours, then rinsed off before undergoing a second period, this time immersed in water for a further 12-24 hours.

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Nairobi_Packers_KenyaWe speculated that this process could be a key factor in delivering the citrusy and blackberry flavours typical of Kenya. Their future outlook is optimistic, with improvement work planned for the next 8 months which will culminate in UTZ certification [see Crema Summer 2010 issue] and hopefully Fairtrade the following year. Much of the work will involve upgrades to the equipment and drying tables, documenting procedures, and upgrades to the water management and waste management of the station, to better protect the local environment. Assisting with the work is Sustainable Management Services (SMS), the sister company of Sangana, whose mission is to represent member farmers and deliver agricultural training programs. The aim of SMS is to help small holders form stable co-op groups and provide training and equipment to help increase crop yields and quality, with a corresponding rise in earnings at sale time. Farmers are organized into a group of 50, who then nominate one member to be the “promoter farmer”. These individuals must be willing to use their farms as open training centres for the rest of the group. The promoter farmer receives advanced agricultural training and a useful kit of tools from the SMS Ag Science staff, which they first implement on their farm, then roll out to the rest of the group.  Promoter farmers work on a volunteer basis for their community, but reap the benefits of the advanced training and improvement to their own business. We visited the farm of David Makina, set in the lush hills around Handege. David was proud to show us the results of his training and hard work. His farm is on a steeply sloping hillside which supports some 500 healthy-looking bourbon Arabica trees. As we walked through the crop, already showing plenty of new fruit ripening towards the July crop, he pointed out the recent improvements. Since the open hillside had no shade tree protection, the land has been terraced to hold nutrients and avoid erosion. Each tree was pruned carefully to about two metres tall for easier harvesting and also pruned into 3 sections of growth. One section would be cut back to the stump every two years, so the tree would always have a high producing mature part, and fresh growth coming through.

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Cupping_paperbags_KenyaDavid has also eliminated the need for chemical fertilizer by producing a special compost, a mix of manure, vegetable scraps and plants selected for their nutrient content. Four kilos of this compost per tree during the year – together with the other improvements – is sufficient to boost his production from 5kg of cherry per tree to an astonishing 15kg, giving him a very respectable income at harvest time! Further down the road, we dropped in to the farm of Daniel Sharia, another promoter farmer, who has also adopted many of these measures.

Daniel’s is a shade farm located on a steep terraced slope leading down to a river. He has chosen shade grown coffee for the longer development time of the cherries, which he says produces a deeper and more intense flavour, returning better prices at sale time.  While shade cropping has many benefits, a major risk in Kenya is the greater exposure to CBD, or coffee berry disease. This is a fungal infection resulting from persistent moisture on the fruit while ripening. As the older variety of SL 28 bourbon plants are more susceptible to CBD, farmers are replacing the older trees with the newer resistant hybrid Ruiru 11. On Daniel’s farm this involves grafting the Ruiru plant onto existing rootstock, allowing him a shade plant with natural resistance to the disease, avoiding reliance on chemical fungicide.  Much of Kenya’s crop is now produced by Ruiru 11 for this reason.

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From the farms we headed to the auction rooms, where much of Kenya’s coffee is sold.  Farmers in Kenya have the option of selling direct to an exporter, or through the auction, allowing market forces to dictate price. This year most were choosing the auctions, where prices are very high due to high world demand and the relative scarcity of quality Kenyan coffee. Held each Thursday, the auction is a quiet place, but the pace is fast, with 2-3 lots sold per minute as the traders bid to fill their requirements. Samples of all the lots available have been roasted, cupped and judged the previous week by the various export houses, who may handle over 300 different offerings in this way.

Cupping_Sangana_kenyaThe traders rely completely on these judgments when bidding for the coffee, so the cupper’s talents are very important. Individual offerings of up to 6 tons may be sold as microlots under the estate or co-op name if the quality is superior, generally the large AA or AB screened beans. In addition, traders will be on the lookout for lots the cuppers recommend for blending, to be sold under a trade name chose by the exporter. This is a painstaking process necessary to produce large volumes of high quality green coffee, maintaining a consistent taste profile for roasters to use in their own blends from year to year.  We participated in this process at Sangana’s cupping lab, working our way down the long row of cups with their chief taster Simon, assigning judgments to each lot.  We also tasted a range of the finished blends and microlots available for sale, excited to be selecting our own exclusive coffees for the coming year.   We went on to visit several more exporters during our 2 weeks in country, but remained very impressed by Sangana’s people, commitment to quality and great efforts in the farmer training programs.

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The news for Australian roasters is both good and bad – the quality of Kenyan coffee still looks excellent, and will remain so through the efforts of Kenyan farmers working with people like Justin and his team.  Farmers are receiving excellent prices due to the high demand for their product, and some are gaining at least temporary wealth selling their land to property developers.  On the minus side, Kenyan specialty coffee may become quite scarce in Australia and very expensive during the year; most of the top lots had already been bought up by Europe and North America when we arrived. Get in early or miss out! For me the trip was highly rewarding-to see first hand the complex work behind the scenes, and to understand the process which leads to bags of green beans arriving in our roastery.

For a coffee geek, it’s a priceless experience-can’t wait to write about the next one.

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