Coffee growing was introduced in Kenya by the British in around 1900 and by way of Ethiopia. Agriculture remains the mainstay of the economy, employing around 75% of the population and contributing to some 50% of the country’s exports (led by coffee and tea).
Today, the primary growing regions are situated in Kenya’s Central Highlands - on the high plateau just north and north-east of Nairobi, on the southern slopes of Mt. Kenya to the north, and in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains to the west. The majority of the country’s coffee (around 55%) is produced by upwards of 600,000 smallholders, organised into several hundred cooperatives. The rest of the country’s production is by medium and large estates, many of which run their own wet - and sometimes also dry - mills.
Only Arabica is cultivated in Kenya. In the 1950s, several extremely successful hybrids from Scott Laboratories were introduced and these have largely replaced the original French Bourbon stock which had been brought to Kenya from neighbouring Ethiopia. The most well-known are SL (‘Scott Laboratory’) 28 and SL34 - these are Bourbon varieties and lend Kenya the distinctive big body and winy blackcurrant notes for which it is famed. The country’s location on the equator allows for two harvests per year – the main harvest in October to December and a second ‘fly crop’ in April to June. Coffees are usually fully washed, then dried in the sun on raised drying screens - often known as ‘African beds’.
Kenya’s coffee industry is organised around a weekly government-run open auction system, which dates back to 1934. This transparent system has established a pricing hierarchy based on quality, with higher quality lots fetching higher prices. The auctions, which take place at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, are widely considered to be the most transparent price-discovery and distribution system for fine green coffees anywhere in the coffee world, and inspired the model for the Cup of Excellence auctions. There is often stiff competition for the best lots, particularly from better-known estates and co-ops and for the AA grade beans. The grades, however, are simply a measure of bean size, not of defect tolerance (AA is screen 17/18; AB is screen 15/16 with a tolerance for 10% below screen 15).
Ahead of each auction, samples of each lot are distributed to the 50 or so licensed exporters – or ‘members’ – of the Nairobi Coffee Exchange where they are cupped and, in most cases, sent on to their customers. In this way, Mercanta receives samples for cupping in our lab. We then instruct our exporter on our preferred lots. An agent then bids on behalf of the exporter at the auction to secure the necessary lots.
In late 2006, new legislation made it possible for coffee sales to be negotiated directly between producers and buyers - until this point the auction platform had been compulsory. This new system, known as the ‘second window’, was the product of pressure from some farmers and cooperatives, who maintained that the auction system encourages the existence of a long chain of middlemen who erode the farmers’ income. Supporters of the auction, however, claim that the auction promotes a highly effective price-discovery mechanism - and that corruption at cooperative management level is often the real barrier to funds reaching producers.
The government has licensed upwards of 30 independent marketing agents who are now permitted to sell directly to foreign green coffee buyers, bypassing the auction system. Until this change in 2006, all Kenyan coffee at the auction had been sold through three marketing agents who demanded a fee from the grower for their services. These new licensees are required to fulfill certain criteria before being awarded their license - including storage standards and a bank guarantee to ensure farmers are paid.
Today many of Kenya’s small farmers have yet to find a direct path to the international market, though this situation is changing gradually. The auction system, meanwhile, continues to run in parallel, is open to all producers and is the means by which some 90-95% of Kenya’s coffee is still sold.
Finally, we should point out that when buying through the auction system, it can be difficult to gather detailed information on the precise provenance of the coffee. We have visited some of the estates that we know well, such as Gethumbwini, but it is not always possible to achieve complete traceability on all lots. Again, this situation is changing as the market in Kenya – both through the auction and the new licensed marketing agents – adapts to the needs and demands of the specialty coffee roaster and their customers.