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Neighboring the motherland of coffee, Kenya produces juicy and fruity coffees primarily on smallholder farms.

Despite its proximity to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia, coffee growing was introduced in Kenya relatively late – by Scottish missionaries, initially, and then commercially around 1900. Despite the late start, today, it is a country renowned for having some of the best coffees in the world. Nonetheless, Kenya’s coffee sector faces challenges for the future, and low global prices combined with climate change and population growth have diminished the country’s output over the last decade.

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  • Place In World For Coffee Exporter
  • Sacks (60kg) exported annually
    Approx: 836,000
  • Percentage of world coffee market
    Less than 1%
  • Other major agricultural exports
    Tea, green beans & other legumes
  • Estimated number of families relying on coffee for livelihood?
  • Typical varieties produced
    SL28, SL34, K7, Ruiru 11, Batian & Kent
  • Key coffee regions
    Nyeri,Murang’a, Embu, Kirinyaga, Marsabit, Meru, & Kiambu, among others
  • Typical harvest times
    March – July (main); September – December (fly)
  • Typically available
    From May

Coffee's Beginning

Coffee’s colonial roots in Kenya saw initial commercial production occurring on large British-owned farms. After the Mau Mau uprising in 1954, which led to the country’s independence in 1963, the coffee sector (including production) was turned over primarily to Kenyans. Today, the country’s primary growing regions are situated in the 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 percent) 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.

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, both of which are Bourbon varieties and lend Kenya the distinctive big body and winey blackcurrant notes for which it is famed. Other varieties, such as Batian and Ruiru 11 (both of which are known for their resistance to Coffee Berry Disease, another challenge in Kenya’s coffee sector), are becoming increasingly prevalent, as well.


Introduction of the Auction System

Even prior to the end of the colonial era, (since 1934, in fact) Kenya’s coffee industry has been organised around a weekly government-run open auction system. Developed as a result of Kenya’s 1933 Coffee Act – a measure passing control over sales of coffee from London to Kenya itself – 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 most highly graded AA grade beans. Grades within the Kenya system 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 percent below screen 15).

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.

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Helping the Smallholder

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 a handful of marketing agents who demanded a fee from the grower for their services. These new licensees are required to fulfil 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 gradually changing. The auction system, meanwhile, continues to run in parallel, is open to all producers and is the means by which some 85-95 percent of Kenya’s coffee is still sold.

The country’s location on the equator allows for two harvests per year. Coffees are usually fully washed, then dried in the sun on raised drying screens.