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DEVELOPMENT-KENYA: Coffee Profits Not Percolating Down to Farmers

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, May 7 2006 (IPS) - Lucy Wangui once appreciated her coffee trees, but not any more. Instead, the small-scale grower from central Kenya says they are causing her more trouble than they’re worth.

Wangui – who began farming coffee in 1975, and used to own 300 trees – has watched helplessly as the once vibrant coffee sector withered, with particularly devastating consequences for small-scale growers.

“In the past, the 300 trees would give me more than 50,000 Kenya shillings (about 714 dollars). This later dropped to 20,000 (about 285 dollars), and now to 7,000 (about 100 dollars), which I get paid by the marketing agents after a year,” she told IPS.

“I cannot afford to take all my ten children to school because the proceeds from the coffee are barely enough; I cannot even afford food for them to eat. I put in a lot of money to produce the coffee, but what I reap in the end does not match what I have put in.”

In addition, a system that allowed farmers to get fertilizer on credit from coffee factories has collapsed. With high interest rates making growers fearful of taking loans for fertilizer, the quality of coffee has declined, noted Wangui.

“Is it not better if I do away with the coffee completely and in its place, plant maize or bananas so that my children can eat?”

In fact, Wangui has already started to cultivate alternative crops, cutting down 100 of her 300 coffee trees, and planting maize instead. If coffee farming does not become more lucrative soon, she will chop down all the trees.

Peter Mwangi Njoroge, chairman of the League of Small-Scale Coffee Farmers, has a similar story; he has been growing coffee since 1970.

“Last year I harvested 1,000 kilogrammes of coffee, and was paid a total of 16,000 Kenya shillings (about 229 dollars),” he told IPS, noting that this amounted to 16 shillings, or about 20 cents, for every kilogramme of coffee.

“I had spent 12,000 Kenya shillings (171 dollars) to produce the coffee, buy fertilizer, pay my workers. This means I got a profit of only 4,000 Kenya shillings (about 57 dollars),” Njoroge said.

“I know the actual price of a kilo of coffee was more than the 16 Kenya shillings. The main problem in this country is that coffee farmers are paid poorly.”

Coffee reportedly fetches about three dollars per kilogramme at auction in Kenya at present.

“If this coffee cannot help me, then it is useless. If these problems cannot be addressed, then I am going to mobilize the small farmers to cut down all their coffee trees,” Njoroge added.

These frustrations dominated a two-day meeting held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi last week. The May 4-5 gathering, held with assistance from Norwegian Church Aid, a development agency, brought together small-scale growers and policy makers in a bid to restore the ailing coffee farming sector.

Coffee was Kenya’s top foreign exchange earner when the East African country gained independence in 1963, remaining so until the late 1980s. But production has since fallen, and coffee is now only the fourth-largest earner after tourism, tea and horticulture.

According to agriculture officials, Kenya currently produces about 50,000 tonnes of coffee, compared to an all-time high of 130,000 tonnes in the 1987/1988 season.

The crisis bedeviling the industry has been attributed to a decline in world coffee prices caused by a global surplus of the commodity.

But, a subsequent rebound in prices does not appear to have benefited small-scale coffee growers in Kenya, something blamed in part on the long chain of middlemen that siphon off profits – and a poorly-structured marketing facility.

“Farmers must sell their coffee through the auction, and through the three marketing agents appointed by law. These agents have often indicated that coffee farming is profitable, but the farmers are not getting the profit. It may be getting lost somewhere along the way,” says James Nyoro, executive director of the Tegemeo Institute of Agriculture Policy and Development at Egerton University in Kenya.

Nyoro told IPS that the law should allow farmers to deal directly with buyers so that they can understand what the market entails, and change their products to meet buyers’ needs. He believes this could occur alongside the existing auctions.

Legislators appear to have heeded the advice.

A bill aimed at reforming the coffee sector which is currently in the pipeline would enable farmers to be involved in marketing their produce, says Solomon Waweru, managing director of the Coffee Board of Kenya – a government body.

In addition, small-scale farmers are campaigning for a system of direct selling: in a memorandum issued to the agriculture minister at last week’s meeting, they stated that they wanted to have access to coffee buyers and roasters.

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