Two decades ago, Kenyan coffee farmers armed themselves with bows and arrows and marched on the offices and factories of the companies that process and export their beans. Fed up with low prices for their crop and and complex credit system that tied them into relationships of debt and dependency, the farmers had had enough.
While the weapons may have been laid down, today farmers in Kenya are still frustrated with the low returns on what was once a bumper cash crop. During the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, coffee was Kenya’s black gold and in 1988, Kenya produced 130 000 tonnes of coffee. In the 2016/2017 season, coffee production stood at 45 000 tonnes. Now, farmers are turning to other, more profitable crops such as avocados and macadamias, or selling their land altogether to property developers who build housing on this prime farmland.
Despite these challenges, Kenyan coffee remains one of the world’s best. Coffee that achieves the AA grading commands some of the highest prices on the global market and is sought after for specialty cafes that like to showcase their origins. The main coffee growing regions around Mt Kenya have the perfect combination of sunlight, rainfall and altitude to produce outstanding coffee.
What limits the prices that farmers can command are the often integrated structures of the marketers, millers and exporters, who are able to absorb most of the returns from the international sale of coffee onto the world market. While coffee in Kenya is organised through a system of cooperatives that are meant to support the small-scale farmers who grow the coffee, in reality the cooperatives are beholden to larger multinationals who control milling, marketing and trading, while also controlling the lines of credit that farmers need to invest in their plantations. In contrast, the low production costs and relatively less complex business structure of avocados and macadamias make these crops much more attractive to farmers.
Travelling with Ameru Coffee, a Sydney-based importer of Kenyan coffee for the specialty market, photographer Toni Veziris was able to capture the nature of coffee production in Kenya. Meeting farmers such as Simon Gikunda Zaverio brought home the impact of the unfair market structure. With awareness of the limitations of the current export system in Kenya and a desire to ensure that Kenyan farmers are getting a just price for their exceptional crop, coffee importers such as Ameru are able to bypass the Kenyan strictures and provide a direct link between roasters and growers. Through these business partnerships, Kenyan coffee can continue to take its rightful place in the specialty coffee market, and the world can continue to experience the unique flavours of Kenyan coffee.