Kenya

Kenya produces some of the most exquisite coffee in the world. The best Kenyan coffees have a sparkling acidity, juicy mouthfeel, incredible floral aromatics, complex ripe fruit flavours and intense sweetness.

Most of the coffee in Kenya is grown in the Central Highlands on the high plateau – north and northeast of Nairobi, on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains. Most estates are concentrated in the Kiambu growing region (which includes the towns of Thika, Ruiru and Limuru), while smallholders are concentrated in Nyeri and its neighbour to the east, Kirinyaga. Other growing areas in Central Kenya include Embu, Meru and Murang’a. Coffee is also grown in Western Kenya, in the regions of Nakuru and Baringo (close to Central Kenya) and Kisii (in the southwest), and Trans-Nzoia, Keiyo, Marakwet, which are located further west.

Central Kenya is known for high quality and complex coffees, thanks to the excellent natural conditions for specialty coffee, and a high concentration of well-run wet mills. The west is also emerging as an exciting new region with great potential. While the cooperatives here are not as organised as those in Central Kenya, the climate and altitude are perfect for producing exceptional coffee, and many exporters are starting to invest in gaining access to these coffees.

Overall, coffee production in Kenya accounts for around 10% of its exports, and the country can produce around 65,000 tonnes of coffee per year. All exported coffee is processed using the washed processing method and dried on raised African drying beds. There are two major harvests in Kenya: the fly (mitica) harvest, which runs from February to July, and the main crop, which runs from September to December.

History of Coffee in Kenya

Coffee was introduced to Kenya in the late 1800s by French and Scottish Missionaries. It began to be commercially produced at the start of the 20th century. By 1920, coffee had become Kenya’s biggest export. In 1933, the Kenyan Coffee Board was established, and the following year the auction system was set up. Protocols were soon established that were used to grade coffee and help improve quality.

For the first half of the 20th century, coffee was produced on large British-owned estates under colonial rule. It was not until the Mau Mau uprising in 1954 – which ultimately led to the country’s independence in 1963 – that coffee production began to be transferred from the British to the Kenyans, and many smallholder farms were established, along with cooperatives and wet mills to process their coffee.

By the late 1970s, the production of smallholders had surpassed that of the larger estates. Today, smallholders represent about 55% of production. It is estimated that there are around 700,000 small producers in Kenya, who are members of several hundred cooperatives that own their own washing stations. The remainder of Kenyan coffee is grown on medium or large estates, most of which have their own wet mill, and sometimes dry mill.

The Kenyan Auction System

The Kenyan auction system was established in 1933, and today most coffee in Kenya is still sold via this weekly, government run auction. Way ahead of its time, this transparent and centralised system has established a pricing hierarchy based on quality, with higher quality lots fetching higher prices. The auctions take place at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange and are considered by many to be the most transparent and effective price-discovery and distribution mechanism for fine green coffees anywhere in the world. (It even inspired the Cup of Excellence auction model).

Before 2006, the auction platform was the only way that coffee could be sold and bought in Kenya. New legislation was then introduced to make it possible for coffee to be purchased directly from a cooperative or estate. Off the back of this legislation, the government has licensed upwards of 30 independent marketing agents, who are now permitted to sell directly to foreign green coffee buyers and bypass the auction system.

Today, most coffee (upwards of 90%) is still sold via the Kenyan Auction system, however this is gradually changing. Melbourne Coffee Merchants prioritises coffees that can be purchased directly from producers or cooperatives, but we also do source some coffees from the auction system.

The Chain of Custody in Kenya

The chain of custody in Kenya is regulated to protect the coffee grower, in that the coffee belongs to the farmer or cooperative until it has been sold to the final buyer, either through the auction system or directly. A Kenyan coffee farmer will either deliver their coffee cherry to a cooperative owned factory (or washing station) where it is processed before being delivered to the dry mill, or process the coffee on their own farm and deliver dried parchment it to the mill directly.

During the milling stage the coffee comes under the custody of a marketing agent, who works on behalf of the farmer or cooperative to secure milling services and then market the coffee to traders, who buy and sell coffee at the auction or sell directly to an importer or roaster.

Kenyan law prohibits that a single company can operate as the grower, miller, marketing agent and trader, and since 2023, marketing agents cannot be affiliated by particular mills and traders. The marketing agent is employed solely by the farmer to facilitate the best sale (highest price) to the final buyer, and to assist in achieving the best quality and yields during the growing and harvesting season.

The diagram below aims to break this down further to show how this chain of custody works.

 

Our Supply Partners in Kenya

Since we began directly buying coffee from Kenya in 2017, our line-up has celebrated small estates who process and market their coffees independently of the cooperative system. As with every other region we source from, our goal is to invest in direct relationships and work towards a long-term committed partnership that benefit both parties. Through this model, we have connected to several key individuals in Kenya’s coffee sector who we called upon to help us navigate this challenging season.

One of these people is Wycliffe Marayi, the former Managing Director for Kahawa Bora Mill (a private mill whose license has now been revoked), who now works as an independent contractor. Wycliffe is a long-time friend to MCM and has an extraordinary knowledge of Kenya’s coffee industry and the people that work within it. During our time on the ground, Wycliffe was instrumental in connecting us to smallholder farmers and forward-thinking cooperatives, and in communicating our needs to these players. Through his network, we were able to cup and commit to buying lots from several small estate holders in Kenya’s central highlands. Read more about Wycliffe, in his own words, here.

Whilst we love buying from small, independent estates, buying from cooperatives is also an important component of our buying strategy. In many cases, small estates will only produce 10-20 bags a season, so it’s through co-op owned factories that we can secure much-needed volume. Factories also typically produce high and consistent quality because there is more labour available at these sites and processing practices are overseen by a manager.

 

Grading

Grades within the Kenya system are simply a measure of bean size, not of defect tolerance. Typically, the best lots are either AA (screen 17/18), AB (screen 15/16), or PB (grade for peaberries, where a single bean has grown inside the coffee cherry instead of two).

AA grades are usually considered superior and command the highest prices, but sometimes AB lots can be more complex and of a higher quality than AA lots. We therefore always trust the cupping table when selecting coffees for purchase, and ensure this is what guides our purchasing decisions.

Varieties

In the specialty coffee world, Kenya is famous for two unique varieties: SL-28 and SL-34. Both have Bourbon and Moka heritage and are named after the laboratory that promoted their wider distribution in Kenya during the early 20th century – Scott Laboratories (now the National Agricultural Laboratories of Kenya).

These varieties are prized for their exceptional flavour, distinctive big body, and winey blackcurrant notes. Other varieties, such as Batian and Ruiru 11 (both of which are known for their resistance to Coffee Berry Disease and Leaf Rust) are becoming increasingly common as well.

Processing

All exportable coffee in Kenya is processed using the washed processing method, which involves double fermentation.

Coffee cherries are carefully hand picked and delivered, either directly to the wet mill or to a collection centre. They are transferred to pre-sorting mats or tables, where any unripe or damaged cherries are removed. The coffee is then weighed and processed using the washed processing method.

The coffee cherries are first put in a tank full of water, and any immature cherries are removed (these cherries float and are therefore easy to remove). The coffee is then pulped using a disc pulper to remove the skin and fruit from the inner parchment layer that protects the green coffee bean. After being pulped, the coffee is sorted by weight using water, with the highest quality and densest beans being separated out from the lighter, lower quality beans.

After pulping, the coffee is dry fermented overnight to break down the sugars, before it is cleaned using water, sorted once more via water channels (the heavier coffee, which sinks, is considered the higher quality, sweeter coffee) and soaked for a further 24 hours in clean water. This process strengthens the proteins and amino acids in the bean which, in turn, heightens the complexity of the acidity and the clarity in the cup.

After soaking, the coffee is spread out on raised drying tables (also known as African beds) where it is turned constantly to ensure the coffee dries evenly, and so that any defects can be identified and those beans removed. Time on the drying tables depends on climate, ambient temperature and volumes under processing. It can take anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks to get to the target moisture level of 11-12%.

How we source coffee in Kenya

  • Our purchasing decisions are driven by which coffees taste the best on the table. We cup all of the coffees blindly and look for coffees that are sweet, clean and distinctive.
  • Our selections are based on a scoring system, and we buy coffees that are a minimum of 85 points or above. Most come from washing stations we have been working with for many years, and we try to select coffees from single producers wherever possible.
  • Since 2019 we have regularly travelled to Kenya to select coffees from single producers and small cooperatives (with the exceptions of 2020-22, due to the Covid-19 pandemic).
  • When we buy a coffee from a single producer, we endeavour to purchase all three grades of that coffee (AA, AB and PB) so that they don’t have to find different buyers for each lot. Our goal is to continue buying from the same producers, year after year, and establish mutually beneficial and committed relationships with our suppliers in Kenya.
  • All of the lots we select go through a rigorous QC process. In addition to periodically cupping and scoring each lot over a 6-month period (to assess how it ships, lands and ages over time) we also record the water activity and moisture levels.  All of this information is shared with our producing partners, along with where the coffee is sold, and how it is received and presented by our customers.