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Where is the Organic Kenyan Coffee?
Tuesday, April 08, 2014

One of our clients recently asked about the availability of certified organic coffee from Kenya. It’s interesting that while the countries of Ethiopia and Kenya share a border (though all the coffee growing areas of Kenya are hundreds of miles from the border), Ethiopia produces an abundance of certified organic coffee (to say nothing of the coffees that are not certified but, for all intents and purposes, are organic) while Kenya produces hardly any. There are at present only a handful of certified organic Kenyan coffee farms.

Efforts are being made in this area, and there will likely be more choices in the next few years. The size of small farmer plots, typically described by number of trees rather than acreage, is a significant barrier to the production of certified organic coffee in Kenya.  For a coffee plot to become certified organic a significant buffer zone is required, meaning non-organic agents can’t be used for production on surrounding land either. And organic farming produces lower yields, in the case of Kenya, without fetching the organic premium. It’s a difficult situation for most cooperatives, so estates will likely take the lead in transitioning to organic.    

Vulnerability to crop disease is also a challenge in Kenya. The primary enemies in Kenya are coffee berry disease (CBD), a fungus which is still confined to Africa, and leaf rust, another fungus first reported in Kenya in 1861, and by the 1920s widespread in Africa and many of the Asian countries where coffee was grown commercially. Since its discovery in Brazil in 1970, it has quickly spread to most of South and Central America, wreaking particular havoc in the last few years.  To combat these diseases, copper-based sprays are the primary means employed in Kenya. Farmers may also use an insecticide spray to fight the beetle borer, thrips, leaf miners, aphids, and ants, all insects common to our rose bushes here in the United States.

Soil composition is also an obstacle to organic coffee production. Kenya has rich volcanic soils that provide the interesting profiles of their coffee, but may be lacking in some of the organic materials that are found in other regions. This situation could have been exacerbated over time because they practice full-sun agriculture, which is susceptible to erosion. Some farms are now beginning to reintroduce shade trees to their plantations as a means of providing more organic matter, reducing temperatures in the understory and conserving water.

Soil inputs are very common in Kenya, particularly for the estate farmers. The cooperatives have mixed results, because they work with so many members that generally have very small farms with 300 or fewer trees. If the prices are not good in one season, this influences the decisions of the farmers for the next. Basically, poor prices, limited inputs. Even if they get an allocation for NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) fertilizer they may not use all of it for their coffee, but instead use a portion, sometimes large portion, for their other crops such as corn and vegetables. Lack of resources also means farmers may not buy the sprays necessary to combat CBD and leaf rust. All of these factors influence both the productivity and quality of the crop. The better managed co-ops work with their members to improve their productivity, both by ensuring that the inputs are applied to the trees, and via field training classes. 

So there are many challenges to growing organic Kenya coffee, but efforts are under way to meet them and, in time, they should result in an increase in certified organic production

                                                                                                                    - Patrick Kennedy

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