‘My coffee is of purely sentimental value’

By: John Kamau

Former Head of Civil Service Jeremiah Kiereini owns close to 400 acres of coffee straddling Kiambu and Nairobi counties.

Q. You were one of the first Kenyans to grow coffee?

A. Yes. I first planted coffee in 1950s when we were not allowed to plant more than 50 trees. The government later allowed indigenous Kenyans to grow coffee and in 1961, I did four acres. I still retain those coffee trees.

Today you own about 400 acres of coffee? How do you sell your beans?

My farm is managed by Coffee Management Service and we have a contract. My miller is also a marketer and I sell my coffee directly to the market rather than go through the auction (Nairobi Coffee Exchange). I am able to follow my coffee.

How do you compare this scenario with that of small-holder farmers?

The small-holder is not connected to the market. They are not involved in determining the price. Even for us, we do not have knowledge of the coffee market and we have to rely on the marketing agents.

The coffee industry has been faltering, especially for co-operatives?

It never used to be this bad. In the beginning, I used to sell my coffee through co-operatives and they used to be very efficient. But the directors have become greedy and collude with input suppliers to overprice. If the co-operatives are efficiently run, farmers could get top dollar. Over the years, the societies always won the prize for the best grade — but they never got the best price.

Why is that?

I think we are failing at the marketing. We could certainly get more money from our coffee. Kenyan coffee is very expensive and rare. But, we have not realised this and we have not been fully organised for that market.

What then is the future of coffee?

Coffee is a dying economy. If we go ( as a country) below 40,000 tonnes, we won’t be able to compete.

But you have not uprooted your coffee?

I am a rural man and it is more about sentimental value. Those cutting down the coffee trees for real estate are wise. I am not. Some companies in the coffee chain are holding dealer, marketing and milling licenses.

Wouldn’t such licensing lead to price fixing?

It is possible. It depends on the integrity of the people. It also happens with warehouse sweepings (Coffee that has spilt from bags). This has been one of the biggest scandals and way of cheating. It has been riddled with dishonesty and coffee worth millions of shillings is sold this way.

You relish the good old days of the coffee boom?

When I bought my farm, the coffee prices were rock bottom at $250 per tonne. It then shot to $850 per tonne and people simply lost their minds. There was a lot of money and we could walk to DT Dobie and order a brand new custom-made Mercedes twin exhaust.