Kenyan coffee has an international reputation for good quality.
But Kenya’s coffee industry is struggling as production levels have dropped and a younger generation shows little interest in farming. Since the 1980s, coffee production has dropped by two-thirds.
“The German school in Nairobi, when I was there in 1980, ’82, when I went to school there, we were surrounded by coffee fields,” said Stefan Canz with Nestle’s Nescafe Plan in Kenya. “We were doing sports competitions around there in the coffee field. And, now there’s a shopping mall, there’s houses, there’s everything. So, you have to go really up country to find now the next coffee trees.”
Volatile coffee prices, corrupt brokers, and disease discouraged investment.
Coffee yields fell to two kilos per tree, a fifth of what they once were, and fewer of Kenya’s younger generation stayed on the farm.
“After independence, what happened is people were looking for more white collar jobs rather than the farm,” said Peter Kimata, deputy general manager for Coffee Management Services. “The farm was seen to be like a peasant kind of affair. It was seen to be a poor man’s business.”
Coffee farmer Martin Mureithi Alexander wants his children to continue working the family farm. But, he admits their education could take them elsewhere.
“The government may employ them with the time,” he said. “But at this time, they are working on my coffee farm.”
Since 2014, Kenya’s coffee production has been rising-but slowly.
Improving productivity is key to showing Kenyan youth that coffee farming can be profitable, says Kimata.
“Moving the trees from producing two kilos, from producing one and a half kilos, moving them to five kilos, moving them to seven kilos, moving them to fifteen kilos,” he said. “Moving them to that kilos whereby now, with high productivity, there is better return on investment.”
Disease-resistant coffee trees and farmer training are helping. But better implementation is needed or else Kenyan coffee risks losing its significance to bigger producers, warns Nestle’s Stefan Canz.
“Countries like China or Vietnam can serve as inspiration, that people see that it’s possible,” he said. “And then you have to find the African way, the Kenyan way, or the Côte d’Ivoire way, to move towards that.”
The question is whether the investment of time and money on the farm is a cost that Kenya’s younger generation is willing to pay.