Green coffee samples at Dormans in Kenya. Photo by Joe Marrocco
Since gaining independence in 1963, Kenya has developed a reputation for producing extremely high-quality coffee, supported by world-renowned research and development of the commodity.
Coffee first arrived in Kenya in 1893, when French missionaries brought Bourbon coffee trees from Réunion. It was under British colonial rule that coffee production in Kenya was initiated, to sell the crop in London. In 1933, the Coffee Act was passed, allowing the Kenyan Coffee board to be established, thereby redistributing the sales of coffee back to Kenya. A year later, the auction system was established and is still in use to this day.
There are two unique and exciting elements of Kenyan coffee. Firstly, coffee production is dominated by smallholders, rather than larger estates. Secondly, these smallholder producers have access to the processing factories, which allows the farmers a more controlled means of ensuring that their product maintains its quality and origin.
The high level of control that Kenyan farmers have actually results from a 1950s act known as the ’Swynnerton Plan’. This initiated the transfer of the ownership of coffee production from the British to the Kenyans. At that time, much of the agricultural industry in Kenya was comprised of family holdings, so the exchange of coffee production was managed and continued by small, family-led enterprises.
Coffee in Kenya is known for being highly traceable. The typical process involves the harvested coffee being processed at a factory known as a ‘washing station’. The process usually follows a size grading of the coffee, yet such grading might involve coffee collected from several hundred farmers. However, Kenyan farmers are known for processing their coffee at the washing station themselves. Through this self-managed process, the farmer can have stronger control of the transparency of their crop, thereby strengthening the quality of the final product.
Home to the volcano known as ‘Mount Kenya’, the rich red soils of Nyeri have underpinned the region’s ability to produce some of the best coffee in the country. The coffee itself has been nicknamed ‘the heart of Black Gold Coffee’, as the beans are dense, slowly-developed and have an intensely packed flavour. Nyeri became UTZ certified in 2008, which dramatically improved the quality of the region's coffee. It is common to see more smallholder producers throughout Nyeri (as opposed to larger estates), most of whom belong to cooperative organisations, allowing such producers to access the local processing mills.
Murang’a is home to around 100, 000 coffee farmers, most of whom are smallholders rather than large estates. This area was also one of the first regions in the country to be settled by missionaries. The local climate consists of warm daytime and cool nighttime temperatures, and when combined with the rich volcanic soils, result in a coffee with a fruity profile and complex acidity.
While the region is a relatively small contributor to the nation’s coffee production, Embu upholds the strong reputation of Kenyan coffee. This reputation is supported by the region’s favourable conditions, as the nutrient-rich soils, high altitudes and abundant rainfall allow for a high-quality coffee crop. The coffee from Embu is known for its notes of fruits, berries and chocolate, along with having a balanced acidity and full body.
Kiambu is located in the central highlands of Kenya, just east of the Great Rift Valley. The area is benefited by being located at the foothills of the Aberdare ridge, which provides rich soils, a temperate climate and rainfall. While large corporations are active in this area, many smallholders are still able to provide a quality product to the market, and in turn, can receive a fair price for their produce.