Kenyan Coffee's Complex History

Posted on October 21st, 2023.

Kenyan coffee, with its unique and complex flavors, has captured the hearts of specialty coffee roasters worldwide. But behind this beloved beverage lies a complex history that many coffee lovers may not be aware of. Join us as we embark on a journey to explore the origins of Kenyan coffee and uncover its fascinating past.

The story of Kenyan coffee starts in 1883, when French Catholic missionaries introduced the coffee plant to the fertile soils of Kenya. The first coffee crops were planted in the picturesque Taita Hills region, and as Kenya became a British colony, coffee cultivation spread to the iconic Mount Kenya region.

However, the growth of the Kenyan coffee industry was marred by a dark chapter in history. The British colonizers, driven by their desire to exploit the land and its resources, imposed systems of forced labor on Kenyan communities. Through the implementation of a tax system known as "Hut Tax," as well as slavery-like policies and government regulations, the colonizers compelled Kenyans into labor. Under the Kipande system, laborers were bound to their employers and unable to change jobs without permission. For over six decades, coffee growing and trading were monopolized by white settlers, while Kenyans provided the forced labor.

In the 1950s, Kenyans rose up against the oppressive colonial government in what was known as the Mau Mau Uprising. In response, the British introduced a deceptive land reform system called "the Swynnerton Plan." This plan allowed Kenyans to grow coffee but limited coffee cultivation to a maximum of only 100 coffee bushes per person and required farmers to be part of cooperatives. The coffee produced was then sold exclusively at the Coffee Auction, which remained under the control of the colonizers.

However, with Kenya gaining independence in 1963, coffee emerged as a vital cash crop for many small-scale farmers. It became a beacon of hope, offering better economic opportunities and improved living standards for communities across the country. Today, over 70% of Kenyan coffee is grown by nearly 1 million small and medium-scale farmers.

During the 1970s, coffee played a pivotal role in Kenya's economy. Exports soared, increasing by 80 percent between 1970 and 1980. Each year, a staggering 2 million tons of coffee were exported, bringing in approximately $275 million for the country.

Yet, despite its rich history and tremendous potential, the Kenyan coffee industry faced significant challenges. Between 1991 and 2016, coffee production in Kenya declined by almost 60 percent. Farmers are abandoned coffee farming because of low prices. In response, the government took steps to revitalize the industry. In 2016, a new program was implemented to encourage farmers to continue producing coffee. This initiative introduced a direct trading window for farmers, bypassing traditional Coffee Auction and allowing them to sell their beans directly to the market. The goal was to ensure that farmers received fair prices for their produce and to incentivize them to maintain their commitment to coffee cultivation.

Today, the Kenyan coffee industry stands at a critical juncture. In 2018, a staggering 90% of Kenyan coffee was still sold through the Coffee Auction contributing to diminishing returns for farmers. Unfortunately, by 2022, coffee production had plummeted by 80% as more farmers abandoned coffee farming. In 2023, it became evident that this is a defining moment for both farmers and the government. Reforms have been advocated to ensure that farmers receive fair prices for their hard work and dedication. These reforms are crucial for the long-term sustainability of the Kenyan coffee industry.

At Jamii Coffee, we wholeheartedly support these reforms in the Kenyan coffee industry. Through our Kenya Ground Up initiative, we are committed to reimagining how Kenyan coffee is traded. We prioritize transparency at every stage of the process, from farms to roasting, forging direct relationships with farmers and specialty roasters. Our mission is not just to sell coffee, but to share a story of sustainability and a thriving Kenyan coffee industry.

Join us in celebrating the rich heritage of Kenyan coffee and its bright future. Together, let's brew a cup that not only tantalizes our taste buds but also uplifts the communities that nurture this remarkable bean.

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