The East African country of Kenya has historically had a well-established coffee sector and a reputation for producing excellent coffee. However, it can often be a challenging environment to navigate as a buyer, and there are calls for the sector to undergo significant reforms in order to address industry power imbalances and production declines.
Kenya's coffee growing history
Despite sharing its Northern border with the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia, the history of coffee cultivation in Kenya is relatively recent, though its exact origin is hard to define. Several stories exist as to how the crop was first introduced: French Catholic missionaries are often cited as being the first to introduce the crop when they planted Bourbon seeds in 1893. Other documents suggest that a Scottish missionary and horticulturist named John Paterson was the first to bring coffee seeds into the country around the same time. Paterson had sourced the seeds in Aden, Yemen and subsequently planted them in Kibwezi, a region around halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa.
In 1895, Kenya became part of the British East African Protectorate and was colonised by Britain in 1920, who ruled the country until Kenyan independence in 1963. During the colonial period, agricultural export earnings became a vital source of government revenue, and the European settlers developed a plantation economy that relied on forced labour. Kenyans were effectively prohibited from cultivating their own coffee until the mid-1930s when an experimental scheme allowed a select group of Kenyans to produce their own.
In the early 1950s, a group called the Mau Mau launched an armed rebellion against the British authorities in what is now known as the Mau Mau uprising. This was in response to the displacement and land taken from large numbers of Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. The British government fired back with agricultural reforms designed to hold favour with Kenyan farmers that were in good standing, whilst still increasing coffee production. Previous restrictions on Kenyans cultivating coffee were dropped, and any farmers who proved loyal to the British were rewarded with land and secure tenures. These land redistribution schemes are what have created the network of smallholders in Kenya today.
Following Kenyan independence in 1963, the government under President Kenyatta worked hard to expand smallholder production by providing farmers with land and financial support. By 1978 smallholder production exceeded estate production for the first time and coffee production peaked in the early 1980s. However, the country’s coffee sector began to decline after this, with blame usually pointed toward the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi because of his interfering with the once autonomous industry for political gain.
The connection between coffee and politics still exists to this day in Kenya. In recent years, various Coffee Bills have been put forward in an attempt to reform the country’s lagging coffee sector, which faces a multitude of problems, including climate change, urbanisation and market concentration. Unfortunately, though, progress on this front is slow.
Coffee farming in Kenya
Coffee is produced under two systems: smallholder farmers affiliated with co-operative societies, and coffee estates, which are individually managed coffee plantations. There are an estimated 700,000 smallholders and around 3,000 estates. Smallholders own around 85,000 of the approximately 110,000 hectares under coffee production and produce the majority of the country’s coffee. The average smallholder farm ranges from 0.2 – 3 hectares whilst the average estate size ranges between 2 and 20 hectares.
Where is Kenyan coffee grown?
Kenyan territory was divided into counties in 2010, but the old system of provinces is often still used to refer to coffee-growing regions. 32 of Kenya’s 47 counties produce coffee and there are five distinct coffee-growing regions: Central, Western, the Great Rift Valley, Eastern and Coastal. Most coffee grows at altitudes between 1400 and 2000 metres in deep, well-drained volcanic soils. Temperatures range from 15 to 24 degrees and average rainfall ranges from 900–1200mm.
Kenya’s most well-known coffees come from the Central Highlands. This area stretches down from the southern slopes of Mount Kenya and the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range to the northern outskirts of the capital, Nairobi. Altitudes range between 1200 and 2200 metres, rainfall exceeds 1000mm annually and the soil is fertile and volcanic.
The Eastern Region encompasses the eastern highlands of Mount Kenya. Altitudes range between 1280 and 1970 metres and annual rainfall averages almost 1300mm. The soil is volcanic and rich in organic matter. The region also includes the mainly arid and semi-arid areas of Machakos and Maukeni. Here, coffee cultivation mainly occurs in hilly areas at altitudes between 1400 and 1830 metres. The average rainfall is around 685mm, although coffee-growing areas receive slightly more.
In the Western region, coffee is grown on the slopes of Mount Elgon near the Ugandan border. Altitudes range between 1500 and 1950 metres, there is abundant rainfall, temperatures are variable and the soil is mature, acidic and highly fertile.
In the Great Rift Valley, which is traditionally a tea-growing region, coffee production is beginning to see an increase. The soils are young, volcanic and fertile. The temperatures are also mild and rainfall tends to be abundant and reliable.
There remain small levels of production in the Coastal region around Taita Hills, where coffee is believed to have been first introduced to Kenya.
What types of coffee are grown in Kenya?
Kenya possesses the perfect conditions for growing high-quality coffee and so almost all coffee grown in the country is Arabica. The varietals commonly grown are SL-28, SL-34, K7, Ruiru 11 and Batian.
The origins of both SL varietals date back to the early 1920s when the British colonial government established Scott Agricultural Laboratories (SL) to conduct agricultural research and provide technical advice and training to Kenyan farmers. As part of the lab’s research, forty-two trees from various origins were selected and studied for yield, quality, disease and drought resistance. SL-28 was selected from the Tanganyika Drought Resistant Variety in what is now known as Tanzania and SL-34 were selected from a coffee estate in Kabete, just outside Nairobi. Both varieties are now synonymous with Kenyan speciality coffee and are known for their exceptional quality and high yields. However, they are both particularly susceptible to coffee berry disease (CBD) and coffee leaf rust (CLR).
K7, another varietal successfully developed by Scott Laboratories, has some resistance to CBD and some types of CLR. It, therefore, doesn’t need the protection that altitude provides from these diseases, and can be grown at lower levels.
Following severe outbreaks of CBD and CLR in Kenya in the late 1960s, an intensive breeding programme took place to develop disease-resistant varietals. This led to the development of Ruiru 11, a compact, high-yielding variety resistant to CBD and CLR but which doesn’t have the best cupping profile. Following the development of Ruiru 11, Batian was introduced in 2010. It is also resistant to both CBD and CLR and is said to cup much higher than Ruiri.
Keyan coffee cupping profile
The typical Kenyan profile is very distinct and recognisable on the cupping table. Kenyan coffees are renowned for being full or medium-bodied with a distinct, almost wine-like acidity. They also have a rich flavour and a balanced and fragrant aroma, infused with floral tones. Notes of berries, citrus, and tropical fruits are common. Blackcurrant is often one of the evident berry notes and is rather synonymous with Kenyan coffees.
Another factor that influences the quality of Kenyan coffee is the processing method. A variation of wet processing, most Kenyan coffee undergoes a process known as double fermentation, double washed, or Kenyan processed. The method starts similarly to the regular washed process, but the coffee cherries undergo a second fermentation process.
What is Kenyan AA coffee?
In order to produce homogenous lots that can be sold together, green coffee is graded and classified prior to export. There is no universal system for grading and classifying green coffee, and each producing country sets its own criteria. Examples of classifying criteria include the coffee varietal, processing method, number of defects or bean size, the latter of which is used in Kenya.
In the coffee industry, bean size is determined using a sorting screen. Metal sheets are set up in layers, each of which has hole sizes of a specific diameter. Beans pass through holes of decreasing sizes, and they are given the label of the last hole they are able to pass through.
Kenya AA coffee is classified as such if it can pass through screen 18 (a hole measuring 18/64 of an inch). Due to their large size, Kenya AA beans are highly sought after as large beans are generally considered to produce better quality coffee. There are many exceptions to this rule, though, and size alone is certainly not the only indicator of standard. To signal quality, Kenya also uses a ‘class’ system ranging from one to ten: the worst coffees receive a one and the best coffees a ten.
When is coffee in Kenya harvested?
Coffee in Kenya is harvested twice a year. The main crop is generally harvested between the end of October and December whilst the fly crop is harvested mid-year, usually between April and July. The exact timings and lengths of harvest seasons are weather dependent, and, like many agricultural sectors, the coffee production cycle is increasingly being affected by the climate crisis, with variations in rainfall and temperatures often affecting the harvest season.
How much coffee does Kenya produce?
Kenya is the fifth largest coffee producer in Africa. Even so, current production is but a fraction of what it once was, with the country’s peak being in the late 1980s when it was generating over 129,000 tonnes annually.
Since then, Kenya’s acreage of coffee production has decreased by around 30% due to factors such as inconsistent prices and climate change prompting farmers to abandon the industry. Large swathes of land previously used for coffee production have been converted into real estate or more profitable agricultural and horticultural crops.
According to the International Coffee Organisation, these days Kenya produces an average of 800 thousand bags of coffee per year. Between 2020 and 2021, Kenya produced around 700,000 bags or just over 40,000 tonnes.
How much coffee does Kenya export?
Despite significant falls in production since its peak in the 1980s, coffee remains an important agricultural export for Kenya, alongside the likes of tea, fresh flowers and vegetables.
In recent years, Kenyan coffee exports have fallen, mainly as a result of adverse weather conditions, which have affected overall production levels. In the first 11 months of 2021, Kenya exported 35,163 metric tonnes of coffee. This marks a 17% year-on-year decline from the 40,980 metric tonnes exported in the same period in 2020.
What is the price of coffee in Kenya?
The Nairobi Coffee Exchange continues to be the main way by which green coffee is purchased from Kenya. Auctions take place weekly when the Exchange will record and publish the prices of graded lots as well as average prices. Fifteen grades of coffee trade at the exchange, and average prices vary greatly depending on the quality of lots on offer that week.
In November 2021, Kenya’s premium AA-graded coffee fetched an average of $416 per 50-kilo bag. Within this average, however, there are substantial price differences even between lots of the same grade. The lowest price for AA in November was $140 whilst the highest price was $499. AB beans sold for an average of $359.92 per bag.
Average prices have dipped since then. In March 2022, AA beans fetched an average of $312.25 per 50-kilo bag at auction whilst AB sold for an average of $276.39. Taking into account all grades sold at auction until April 2022, the average price of a bag from the 2021/2022 harvest was $306.26.
Kenyan coffee is mainly marketed through a centralised auction system. Taking place at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange every Tuesday, coffees from cooperative societies are auctioned off by marketing agents to the highest bidder. Whilst hailed for being transparent, the auction system makes it difficult for buyers to build relationships with the same producers year after year. Many farmers also argue that the system limits their ability to sell freely and encourages the existence of a long chain of middlemen which erodes the farmers’ income. In response to such concerns, a new system known as the ‘second window’ was introduced to allow for coffee sales to be negotiated directly between producers and buyers. Despite this new system, most coffee is still sold via auction and many of the country’s small farmers are still to find a direct path to the market.