Photo: Mike Kenneally, Unsplash

Rising to the challenge of inclusive, sustainable coffee in Kenya 

How farmers can build an equitable and climate-resilient future

This article is brought to you by the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program.

In Kenya, farmers have been growing coffee beans for well over a century. This beloved beverage still sustains livelihoods across large parts of the country today – and not only those of farmers, but along the entire length of its coffee chain, from growing to processing to consumption.

But now, as climate change and land degradation take hold, while demand for coffee skyrockets, it’s more crucial than ever for Kenya’s coffee industry to rethink the way it operates and find new ways to deliver value for local people.

At GLF Nairobi 2023: A New Vision for Earth, speakers discussed how to build sustainable value chains to build climate resilience in Africa and around the world. 

One of the many fruitful discussions at the event, aired on GLF Live, featured Kenyan coffee and forestry experts Elijah Kathurima Gichuru and Anne Fidelis Itubo. This discussion aimed to address the issues of sustainability and inclusivity in coffee production, with a focus on climate and land degradation impacts.

The main solutions proposed by the speakers included: 

  • The use of more sustainable technologies for resource-efficient coffee production
  • Promoting different cropping systems, such as multi-cropping or crop rotation, as an alternative to monocropping
  • Bottom-up transformation focusing on participatory and more inclusive programs and activities, including women and marginalized groups
  • Identifying ways to enhance private-sector engagement to conserve the forest

Here is an excerpt from the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you briefly summarize the coffee industry in Kenya?

Gichuru: Coffee has been grown in this region since 1908. If you came here [to the Gigiri neighborhood of Nairobi] in the 1930s and 1940s, this was a coffee-growing zone. All of the water bodies were for irrigation. Now, the city has expanded, and coffee has migrated away. But where it migrates to may not be the most suitable place in terms of soils, people’s skills and infrastructure.

So, you have to migrate the whole industry, which is still happening today as we are moving from the main coffee zone to the green baskets west of the Rift Valley. We see the future expansion of coffee happening in that area, and some other pockets of the country.

We are currently producing 40,000 to 50,000 tons of coffee. Now, our vision is to increase that to 100,000 in the next five years. This is a collaborative effort between county governments, the national government, the private sector and entrepreneurs who are coming to coffee.

And what’s the current state of forests in Kenya? What challenges are they facing?

Itubo: There are 2.5 million hectares of public forests in Kenya that are under the jurisdiction of the national government, and 1.7 million hectares of community forests, which are under the jurisdiction of the 47 county governments. These community forests are the livelihoods of the people of Kenya and the forest-adjacent communities who depend on them.

Forest landscapes are under major pressure from forest-adjacent communities, from high demand for timber, and also from climate change, which is causing forest fires. Pressure from forest-adjacent communities includes illegal logging and charcoal production, which has pushed stakeholders, communities and the government to look for private-sector involvement to enhance conservation.

The government has an agenda to plan 15 billion trees by 2032 to increase tree cover by 30 percent, and the involvement of the private sector is very critical to achieving this vision. The political discourse and the narrative in the country now is that all people should be able to save our forests and enhance their ecological integrity. 

How is the coffee industry addressing land degradation?

Gichuru: The way we have been producing coffee is as an open-sun monocrop, using organic fertilizers to replace lost nutrients. But this means areas that were farmed before now have very lean soils with high acidity and no organic matter, and productivity has gone down, while pests and diseases have increased. These factors are now the ones that we need to manage, and one of them is soil and water conservation for both irrigation and processing.

Now, we are using less and less water as technology is evolving from fully-washed coffee to partial washing or dry processing. We are looking at the value chain in terms of research and technology development to solve issues from the farm up to the consumption stage.

How is Kenyan coffee adapting to the impacts of climate change?

Gichuru: We have observed a lot of issues to do with climate change. Right now [this interview was recorded on 12 October], we are harvesting coffee and processing, which is not normal. Normally, the rains come in mid- to late October, and then we start harvesting and delivering from November up to February. But it started early because there were off-seasons around January and February, which led to a different stage of flowering.

This affects every stage of the value chain. You get the coffee at the wrong time. You have to operate in small beds for a very long time. Sometimes climate change leads to more uniform flowering, so more uniform harvesting, so you are overloaded at the processing stage. There is a continuous supply of fresh coffee to the market, but it may be more costly to produce.

So, we are looking at production methods. We are no longer emphasizing open monocropping. We’re introducing cover crops at the ground level for soil and water management. We have to investigate which ones are suitable and what else they can do for farmers’ food security, nutrition and cash income. Then we have shade crops, which could be trees for timber, fodder or firewood, or anything else, and also fruit trees.

We are looking at how to make coffee farms more profitable and sustainable in terms of what they produce in totality, including the ecological services introduced, so that we can have a more sustainable economy and environment.

How are you working with local communities, women and youth?

Itubo: Within the participatory forest management space, we work with community forest associations. These are communities that we have legal binding agreements with to access user rights in the forest, and we are very keen to see the participation of women and youth. The current government agenda is bottom-up transformation, and we are looking critically at: how women are involved in conservation, and what benefits are they accruing? How are youths involved?

Women are the pillar of the community. We do a lot of microfinancing to women and contractual agreements with the community associations. When they’re doing tree nurseries or conservation, we encourage them to subcontract activities so that they can derive benefits directly.

There are a lot of women participating: most tree nursery workers are women, and a lot of women are also engaging in small and medium enterprises within the community. So with the bottom-up transformation agenda, there’s a lot of employment created within the landscape. We encourage our youth, we encourage our women, and we visit schools to nurture young schoolchildren to get involved.

Gichuru: Youth are very active in coffee farming in parts of Kenya, where coffee is a very competitive and profitable crop, like the Mount Kenya region. They have started businesses with the production of seedlings, then they plant, and now they are moving to value addition.

We’re also happy with the financing system, which is helping young farmers start, manage and ultimately add value to their coffee. They are being financed to buy machinery, and then we give them technical advice. Now, we are focusing our efforts in learning and training institutions, including coffee clubs in schools, so that they can start learning to enjoy coffee as they move into their adulthood, when they can become entrepreneurs in the value chain.

Listen back to the full conversation here.



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