Trouble brewing for Kenya’s coffee growers

Jane Waithera* hates drinking coffee. It reminds her of the time that she was robbed. She is a farmer from Kiguoya, a village in Kenya’s Murang’a County, and she used to grow coffee beans in her fields. But her produce was repeatedly stolen from the co-operative factories in which it was stored and processed, and she received no compensation.

“I eventually went home, plucked all the crop and planted maize and beans. At least then I can eat them if I don’t get a ready buyer,” she told the Mail & Guardian.

Waithera’s experience is becoming all too common. Kenya’s Arabica coffee beans may be among the most prized in the world, fetching premium prices at the global exchange in New York, but growing them is an increasingly dangerous business.

So far in 2020, some 467 bags of coffee – valued at $50,000 – have already been stolen from Kenyan warehouses, according to Richard Lesiyampe, the principal secretary in the agriculture ministry; and at least 18 people have died in violent incidents thought to be related to coffee smuggling.

In most incidents, groups of up to 20 men, armed with guns and machetes, raid the factories or warehouses where the coffee is being stored, before it is sold for further processing. They target high-quality grades such as AA, AB and PB, which fetch higher prices on the black market. It is thought that these beans are usually sold on to neighbouring Tanzania or Uganda, where they are blended with cheaper beans to improve the overall quality of the blend.

“I am positive that the coffee was being transported to eastern Uganda, where there are known private millers who buy the smuggled coffee from brokers at the border. We have on various occasions raised the queries of how the stolen coffee is transported and how the traffic police are not able to vet the documents that transporters use, including the permits needed to ferry coffee,” said Patrick Kamau, a coffee farmer. 

For the farmers, the loss is devastating. Kenyan insurers do not currently offer policies for coffee growers, which means that growers like Waithera and Kamau are left totally out of pocket when their produce disappears.

Suspicious

This is not a new problem. In 2011, another peak year for coffee thefts, 10 people were killed during robberies. In 2018, the Kenyan government launched a crackdown against what it described as “coffee cartels”, but the impact of this was only temporary. If this year’s numbers are anything to go by, then it is clear that the cartels are becoming more active than ever.

Hiram Mwaniki chairs the Thangaini Coffee Co-operative Society, a consortium of eight different factories. He says he cannot rule out the possibility that the thefts are an inside job, suggesting that the timing and manner of the raids suggests that the thieves had help from factory officials. He also questions the role of the police, saying that sometimes coffee thefts are recorded incorrectly as maize thefts.

Mary Nzomo, the chair of Kenya’s Agriculture County Executive Committee, makes similar insinuations of official involvement. She said that it is suspicious that the stolen coffee can be transported on Kenyan roads without the proper permits, yet still manages to escape. She said that coffee warehouses and factories need to invest in better security, and use firms with reputable credentials rather than “old and tired 67-year-old guards who are asleep half of the time”.

Some growers are already investing in better security, according to a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. But this may not be good enough, it concluded: “As long as Kenyan coffee remains in high demand both globally and regionally, criminal actors will continue to carry out targeted heists in search of quick money. While this puts a severe financial strain on those who depend on coffee for their livelihood, the assertion – repeatedly made – of collusion between thieves and factory officials, and the alleged protection provided by some rogue state actors, points to a more deeply entrenched system that may prove hard to counter.”

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