Coffee farmer

A coffee farmer picks the cherries in Nyeri County. 

| Joseph Kanyi I Nation Media Group

Dark Christmas for coffee farmers as sector reforms bite

What you need to know:

  • New rules outlaw milling, marketing and buying of coffee by one firm
  • Farmers say reforms hurriedly implemented and are hurting growers they were supposed to protect
  • The government should understand that the very farmer who is allegedly being protected from the cartels is the one suffering now says coffee farmer Naftaly Kiambi

Naftaly Kiambi, the chairman of Kaguru Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Society, is a troubled man. Since Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua started reforms in the sector early this year, his anxiety has been heightening by the day.

Then last week the worst happened. The management of a company that mills the society’s coffee, which is based in Thika, asked him to collect his 600 bags of parchment.

“After the company was denied a milling licence, we had to transfer the coffee to the New Kenya Planters’ Cooperative Union (KPCU) miller at Dandora. We incurred over Sh700,000 in costs, which will be transferred to the farmer,” Mr Kiambi said in an interview at the factory in Imenti South.

The new coffee rules outlaw milling, marketing and buying of coffee by one company, the reason some firms were denied milling licences after the expiry of old ones on June 30.

The Gachagua-led reforms are intended to weed out cartels in the sector and put more money in the farmer’s pocket.

As the controversy on whether the millers should be granted interim licences to offload stocks raged, Mr Gachagua stayed put, saying the companies were blackmailing the government.

However, farmers now say the reforms were hurriedly implemented and are hurting the very grower they were supposed to protect.

Rigathi Gachagua

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua (left) and Colombian counterpart Francia Elena Marquez visiting coffee farms in Colombia. The Gachagua-led Coffee reforms were meant to weed out cartels and put more money in the farmer’s pocket, but farmers say they are doing the opposite.

Photo credit: DPCS

“It is clear that the fight is now hurting farmers because while they will bear the extra costs we have incurred; our coffee is yet to be milled. In the past years, by now farmers would have received their money. This is going to be a dark Christmas for coffee farmers in the country,” Mr Kiambi said.

To add insult to injury, thieves raided the society’s stores last Sunday and stole over 100 bags of grade-one coffee valued at Sh3 million. The thieves struck at around 2 am and packaged the coffee in bags, loaded them into a lorry and drove off in an operation that took about two hours.

“Here we are with un-milled coffee and then thieves strike a day after I held a meeting with members to explain why we will not pay them any money. It is very distressing and the government should understand that the very farmer who is allegedly being protected from the cartels is the one suffering now,” he said.

This experience mirrors that of many others in coffee-growing areas across the country.

The matter is even worse for Mr Josphat Kwuriga, the secretary of Mikumbune Coffee Society, also in Imenti South.

He transferred his coffee to the New KPCU mill at Sagana where, instead of the five hours it took to mill 400 bags of coffee, the exercise took four days due to what he said was “lack of capacity” and the use of old machines by the miller.

“On top of the extra cost of transferring the beans, we had to spend more money on an official who is supervising the exercise. This means the farmer will earn less,” he said.

Mr Kwiriga said although they welcome the newly introduced Direct Settlement System (DSS), the payment model does not incorporate the needs of all the players.

“When we sell coffee, it is graded according to each factory and each fetches different prices due to quality. But this payment system lumps up all payments into one account. This will bring about fights among farmers because they will not agree to be paid on a flat rate yet they know all factories don’t produce the same grade. It will demotivate them,” Mr Kwiriga said.

However, Mr Charles Mutwiri, a director at New KPCU, defended the miller, saying it is the most efficient in the country, with well-serviced machines.

“Farmers are allowed to supervise their coffee as it is milled and they are updated on every step in a process which is transparent,” Mr Mutwiri said.

The ramifications of Mr Gachagua’s reforms have been felt in his backyard after about 400 workers of the Central Kenya Coffee Millers Limited in Mathira, Nyeri County, were declared redundant after the miller was denied a licence.

Some of the workers interviewed questioned the wisdom of reforming the sector and at the same time creating unemployment. “It is shocking and heartbreaking that the same government which was elected on a platform of creating employment is the same that has rendered hundreds of us jobless,” lamented a young female worker.

Another one, who had worked at the mill for about 10 years, said it beats logic for a government to arbitrarily withdraw the licences of some millers instead of negotiating with them and coming up with a strategy to work together.

“My life and that of my dependants has now been thrown into a state of uncertainty. The coffee reforms are turning out to be a tool of misery.”

Farmers from the 36 coffee factories within Mathira decried the closure of the mill.

The closure of the mill has also left a bitter taste in the mouth of some real estate developers who had put up rental houses for the workers.  “This is a shocker to some of us. I had secured a loan of Sh10 million to construct a rental house because I could see the potential of this area but with the closure, I don’t know what I am going to do with the houses,” said Mr Blamuel Maina.