Abraham Mwangi, the coffee baron who sowed the seeds of sorrow

By: John Kamau

When he died last year, Abraham Mwangi left many orphans within the coffee syndicate.

If one man straddled the industry like a colossus — then Abraham, as his peers called him, was the ultimate Mr Chairman.

Insiders say that it is Mr Mwangi who built the coffee networks that finally brought the industry into a halt and compromised bodies, such as the Coffee Board of Kenya, which were set up to regulate the industry.

Mr Mwangi was elected the chairman of Coffee Board’s Marketing Committee in 1988 and swiftly won over 18 of 35 delegates elected to represent farmers and plantations.

Those who supported him earned appointments to Coffee Board, Coffee Research Foundation and Kenya Planters Co-operative Union (KPCU).

MOST POWERFUL COFFEE BARON

This way, he managed to control the entire chain — becoming the most powerful coffee baron in Kenya.

Few knew him, as he avoided the limelight. In an open letter that was published in the Finance magazine (1999), former Gatundu MP Kariuki Muiruri openly complained about Mr Mwangi’s immense powers.

“Anyone who dares stand in his way is kicked out of the coffee sector, legally or otherwise,” he told the Minister for Agriculture, Musalia Mudavadi. “Notably, people who have attempted to curtail Mwangi’s immense influence and have him accountable to farmers have been locked out of the industry.”

Mr Mwangi was a coffee dealer, meaning that he could buy coffee and sell to the international market even as he sat at the regulatory body.

Besides being member of the Coffee Board, he was also running the auction system as the chairman of CBK’s Marketing docket.

RAN EVERYTHING

He was also the chairman of the Coffee Research Foundation, member of its finance, staff, and farm management committees. At the Kenya Coffee Auction, which did the actual selling, he sat as a member of the full board.

Mr Mwangi became an instant millionaire. Those in the industry envied his rise.

He also led another industry lobby — Mild Coffee Trade Association of East Africa — whose membership determined who could trade in Kenya’s coffee.

How Mr Mwangi managed to position himself in all the arms of the coffee sector is still unknown.

He wore several hats: a grower, a trader, a regulator, a dealer and a marketing agent.

Those who openly confronted his holding of a dealer’s licence were quickly edged out.

“The mere fact that Mwangi sits or heads virtually all the legal coffee institutions in the country puts him in a position to have first-hand information about every kilo of coffee that has been milled and delivered to the CBK for auction,” wrote Mr Muiruri in his 1999 letter.

UNCHECKED POWERS

He also posed hard questions which nobody answered: “What would prevent such a person from conspiring with a handful of marketers to sell coffee and then trade with it until such a time he sees fit to pay farmers? What would prevent Mwangi from buying coffee of the highest grade at the price of low quality grades and market the same for huge profits?”

Some 16 years after these questions were posed, the industry remains the same — the farmers’ plight has only changed for the worse.

When Mr Mwangi arrived at CBK, his first efforts were to put like-minded people at the helm of the body and banish those opposed to him.

Those who left included KPCU’s managing director Henry Kinyua, former CBK chairman Stephen Michoma, Former KPCU director Kinyua Mbui, former KPCU chairman Simon Kioko and former KPCU Managing Director James Nyaga.

DISHED OUT FAVOURS

At the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, Mr Mwangi built a solid network of both local and international traders, giving out licences to those he favoured while locking out his critics.

It is claimed by insiders that through Mr Mwangi’s efforts, the giant KPCU became a dependent of the Coffee Board and was unable to pay farmers their dues.

It was during his reign that national coffee production dropped from 140,000 metric tonnes to 45,000 metric tonnes at one time.

Mr Mwangi hardly gave journalist a chance to question his powers.

He always lurked behind the bushes as his proxies controlled the coffee chain from the co-operative level to the international market.

Society officials who dared question him were removed in stage-managed coups.

At the district level, Mr Mwangi’s network included government officials who were signatories of the coffee societies.

While he was blamed for the mayhem in the industry, Mr Mwangi kept his cool building a strong coffee empire.

COFFEE BANK

A man who had left his Murang’a base to settle in Kitale, Mr Mwangi had at one time decided to bring together all the unions to start a coffee bank.

He was denied a licence by the Central Bank.

It is only after Kanu left power in 2002 that Mr Mwangi lost his positions at KPCU, the CRF and on the Coffee Board.

By: the time he died last year, Mr Mwangi’s damage to the industry was well known. The networks he left behind are still solid.

He is buried in Nairobi’s Lang’ata Cemetery.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION