Kenya’s coffee history dates back more than 100 years. Coffee was first planted in Kenya’s coast province in 1885. The coffee plants were brought by French missionaries from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. Around the same time, the scramble for Africa was taking shape through the Berlin Conference of 1885. Africa was divided into territories of influence by the European powers. The British Government founded the East African Protectorate in 1895 and soon after, opened Kenya’s fertile highlands to British colonial settlers. Early coffee production was a preserve of colonial settler community. The high demand for coffee in European markets made it Kenya’s main export crop by the 1920’s.
The right of African farmers to grow coffee would however have to wait until the 1950’s. The agitation for self-determination and economic freedom led to the Land and Freedom uprising in 1952. As a response to the uprising, the colonial government initiated a land tenure reform plan that offered the African a system of farming whose production would provide economic incentives. This land reform is usually referred to as the Swynnerton Plan. In 1956, African farmers were allowed to grow coffee but they were restricted to a maximum of 100 coffee trees.
In the 1960’s, the restrictions were removed and Africans could plant unlimited number of coffee trees. This marked the explosion of Kenya’s small-scale and medium scale coffee producer as more Africans got into coffee production or increased their production. The small-scale farmers formed co-operatives to take advantage of economies of scale and solidify collective bargaining power. Today there are over 600,000 smallholder producers organized into about 550 co-operatives. The smallholder farmers account for 75% of the land growing coffee and over half of production.