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Chaos brews in Kenya’s coffee sector as farmers await sip of vaunted reforms

While the ongoing coffee reforms initiated by the state geared to stop the exploitation of farmers by what the government describes as middlemen and cartels might have long-run positive effects, farmers and coffee agronomists are currently trying to make sense of a subsector that is in chaos.

In May of last year, coffee agronomist Steve Koech was meant to begin work as an extension and sustainability officer for a coffee processing and trading company. This opportunity however came at an inopportune time.

“Once the government started restructuring the coffee sub-sector in June of last year, the operating licenses of all coffee private players (millers, marketers, brokers) were revoked. I was meant to work with thousands of farmers in Nandi and Uasin Ngishu counties conducting farm visits, disseminating information and pesticide products to farmers through Trained Trainers (ToTs),” he explains.

Currently, the major body left to reach farmers is the Kenya Planters Co-operative Union (KPCU), a government and farmer-owned parastatal described by coffee stakeholders as unequipped to fill the gap.

“Majority of last year and the whole of this year there have been no field days for coffee farmers which has created a huge information gap within the sector. Previously private industry players would sensitise farmers on methods of raising their yields, what chemical products had been banned, etc. As an example, we have heard murmurings that Glyphosates are among the red-listed pesticides this year but are as yet to have a clear notice on whether we should cease applying them to our coffee and what products we should replace them with.

We can only hope that KPCU and county millers will play a more prominent role in farmer sensitisation this year,” said Collins Kimanthi– a Coffee Q & A officer and coffee farmer.

As yet, Koech points out that the level of service delivery has been woefully inadequate. 

The revamped Cherry Advanced Fund was meant to streamline payment to farmers by sending money directly to their phones. However many have not received the promised 40 shillings a kilo advance. Farmers have had to send their children to school with underpaid fees.

Previously private companies sourced inputs and supplied them to cooperatives. If a farmer had an issue with a pest/ disease outbreak they would call their assigned agronomist who would tell them what to apply. They would then order these pesticides from their cooperative on credit.

“Right now I would say only 50 per cent of the 2,000 farmers I worked with are actively tending to their crop with half of them being able to purchase pesticides directly from agrovets. Farmer cooperatives bought these chemicals in bulk and were able to offer them to farmers at an up to 25 per cent subsidised cost as they are not profit-making entities. Many farmers are currently unable to access vital chemicals with the same regularity, at the same cost, and in the same amounts as they used to. This is because they are slightly more expensive and not adequately stocked in agrovets. These include red and green copper fungicides for the control of the hazardous Coffee Berry Disease (CBD); pesticides for tackling ants, greenscales, and caterpillars as well herbicides. 

Most farmers would currently be applying Zinc and Boron micronutrients to their coffee, but I’m seeing less of them than ever do so,” he pointed out. 

Usually, NGOs such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade International would work through private players within the coffee subsector to sensitize farmers on what products have been red-listed and green-lit for use. This too is not going on. 

“We are hopeful that the government’s coffee reforms will be a net positive to farmers but at the moment the coffee space is like an airfield with no radar and no one knows where this plane will land,” Steve said.

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