Smelling the (profits in) coffee – the woman who reversed her region’s coffee fortunes
Linet Nekesa has spearheaded efforts in her region to get small scale coffee farmers in Western Kenya to grow the crop again after the collapse of the industry a decade earlier. Her hard work is paying off.
By Nathan Ombuni
When global coffee prices slumped in 2008 and the processing factories in her area collapsed due to mismanagement, Linet Nekesa, a single mother of five, was among the smallscale farmers who lost their main source of income.
Two years later, after counting her losses, Nekesa decided to uproot the coffee bushes on her 10-acre piece of land and replace them with sugarcane and maize. Other farmers in her Chesikaki region of Mt. Elgon, in western Kenya, did the same.
“We made huge losses and I told myself that the business was no longer profitable, forcing me to clear my 10-acre parcel of land under coffee,” said Nekesa.
“Coffee factories had collapsed due to mismanagement which left us hopeless. The only remedy I had was to venture into maize and cane farming so that I can get money to fend for my family,” she added.
The four coffee processing factories in the region – Nakoyonzo, Mayekwe, Chepkube and Chesikaki – had all been affected.
Nekesa explained the collapse of the coffee industry in her region allowed unscrupulous businessmen to take advantage of the farmers’ dilemma.
“When the coffee factories we depended on collapsed, Ugandan middlemen used to buy our produce at throwaway prices of 15 shillings (15 US cents) a kilo,” she said.
Another hurdle was that coffee from Nekesa’s region was being processed more than 500 km away. Kenya’s coffee is known internationally for its high quality, thanks to the high altitudes and ideal climate of areas like Mt Elgon and farmers can usually expect good prices for their AA grade Arabica. Unscrupulous cartels, however, started fiddling with the delivery and payments system.
“Our coffee would be downgraded and then we receive low payments on claims that our coffee is Grade (low quality),” she said
Nekesa planted maize on four acres of her land and sugarcane on the remaining six, anticipating a change in fortunes. By the time the maize crop had matured, however, market prices had slumped. Instead of the anticipated 2,800 shillings (28 US dollars), a 90kg bag of maize was retailing at 2,300 shillings (23 US dollars). Nekesa incurred more losses.
When her sugarcane matured, Nekesa delivered 120 tonnes to a local factory. It took three years for her to be paid half of her dues. The rest of the money, she explained, has still not been paid.
“Maize and sugarcane farming were not sustainable and I had to think hard, failure to which my children were not going to complete their university education. Three of them were privately sponsored students while the other two were still in secondary school,” she said.
Faced with mounting pressure to provide for her family, Nekesa summoned a dozen women for a meeting, to find ways of sustaining their livelihoods.
After making several inquiries about the coffee business in general, the women found that to their surprise and in spite of negative reports, the conditions for coffee farmers had begun to change. Prices were on the rise. There was an opportunity – but it would require scale.
“We took advantage of the existing womens’ self-help groups and launched extensive campaigns of lobbying the farmers to go back coffee farming, back in 2017. We caught the attention of the county government of Bungoma, which appreciated our efforts by giving us free coffee seedlings,” said Nekesa.
Nekesa explained that it wasn’t an easy journey for her group of women to convince thousands of other former small-scale coffee farmers to get back into the business. It involved extensive campaigning and lobbying, including the provision of free seedlings, to persuade farmers, in some cases after an 18-year hiatus, to return to coffee farming. Their campaign, however, began to bear fruit.
From 5,000 small-scale farmers in 2017, the number has now grown to 20,000, including members of about 52 cooperative societies in the region.
Nekesa was among the small scale coffee farmers in this region of Kenya who benefited from profits of more than Sh1 billion (10 million US dollars) from coffee sales in 2020, a figure that has attracted attention from all quarters, including the local county governor.
“The best man for the job is always a woman. When we saw what they doing, it encouraged us to put more emphasis in the coffee sector,” said area governor, Wycliffe Wangamati.
Acreage under coffee farming in the Bungoma region has doubled, from 3000 hectares to 6036 hectares, according to Mathews Makanda, the County Executive Committee Member (CECM) of Agriculture.
Bungoma county coffee production in the 2018/19 season was over 2,000 tons and the region’s high-quality coffee now has ready markets in the United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Pakistan, Lebanon and the United States.