Deep into the remaining bits of the heartlands of coffee

The last decade has seen total transformation in one of the most populous counties in Kenya, Kiambu County. The single carriage route leading to this county, is a concrete jungle which is slowly replacing coffee bushes that were once a spectacle of nature for the county as you drove through.

Coffee has been a significant contributor to the country’s GDP, and Kiambu County a hotbed of coffee production, has the ideal soil pH to support the crop.

Together with members of the Fairtrade Africa Board, we escape from Nairobi and the drive is indeed not disappointing. The meandering road leading to the cooperative, a few metres past Kiambu town, churns curiosity and heightens expectations. Just before meandering further, Ndumberi’s Society sign board invites us to the cooperative which is located at a steep slope. At a distance we see metallic drying tables and few wooden drying tables.

We inch closer and we notice 16 of the metallic drying tables have been labelled ‘supported by Fairtrade Premium’. That is re-assuring that indeed we were in the right place. The Society’s Board leadership welcomes us to their offices.

We notice that adjacent to their office building is a painting that is slowly fading of ‘this has been supported by Fairtrade Premium.’  These are their cloakrooms; with a well-fitted WC a rare utility for rural farming communities, who mostly use latrines. Overlooking the cloakrooms, we spot a water tank whose construction was also funded by Fairtrade Premium.

Years of coffee farming have yielded the farmers in this region basic income and even, a more sustainable one through Fairtrade certification. Ndumberi Coffee Cooperative Society which is very few metres from Kiambu town has its members attest to increased production and quality, of their produce as well as higher prices which translates to more disposable income at household level.

We then join the Ndumberi Society’s leadership in their Boardroom for exchange of pleasantries and we listen keenly as they share their history and Fairtrade journey as we sip a cup of coffee.

The average size of land that the members own is ¼ of an acre, which accommodates 200 coffee bushes.  They have used the Fairtrade Premium to invest in their coffee business as well as in community projects. Some of the activities include:

  • Purchase fertilizer and chemicals for their members for spraying coffee.
  • It has afforded them training at Coffee Research Foundation for six of their staff members who cascaded the training down to other farmers and this has resulted their coffee to fetch higher prices with the improved quality.

“50% of our produce we sell on Fairtrade terms,” noted Mr. Stanley Kihiu the Chairman of the cooperative. “As I speak to you, we have an order of 500 bags from a buyer from Netherlands, and we are just waiting for our marketer to complete the order process, he added with a sparkle in his eyes.”

Challenges

The cooperative faces challenges, some of which are common amongst most Fairtrade products. These include erratic weather patterns and lack of involvement from women and youth. A unique challenge to Ndumberi Cooperative is the quick rise of commercial buildings in the area.

The Chairman notes that when old men become frail and weak to manage their coffee, they subdivide it to their children who instead of expanding the black gold, they sell off and move to Nairobi.

Board leadership

It is also interesting to note that out of their eight Board members only one is a woman. “Women mostly shy off from positions whenever we have elections, noted the Chairman.”

The Fairtrade gender project could not have come at the right time, as it aims to have women empowered to take up leadership positions in their cooperatives and in their communities. This is set to be launched on 12 May 2017. Find more information here.

“I joined the Board, forcibly .“Joyce Mwihaki chuckles as she narrates. My fellow women farmers visited me at the time when elections were looming, and requested if I can be their representative in the Board. I think they had seen leadership qualities in me since I had served as a secretary to the women’s guild in my church. Despite that, I did not believe I can be a leader in a cooperative but here I am.”

Mwihaki, has three acres which she has apportioned to horticulture, dairy farming and coffee farming.  She has seven cows and is milking from four.

“As a farmer, the education I have received through Fairtrade on good agricultural practices has helped me. I produce the best grades of AA and AB. Before, I was producing TB and other lower grades and the resultant returns were very low. Now I receive income that is sustainable enough to make me live a comfortable life.  I have moved from a wooden house to a stone house and I do not use firewood, I use gas.” said Mwihaki.

She squints as she shows me the effect of the smoke from firewood on her eyes. She is dependent on glasses to read which she gladly says, “I am happy I can afford them.”

As we are almost parting ways, she shares her vision of wanting to see more women in leadership. “Women should come out and be elected. If we have more women definitely, there will be a change. If you educate a woman, you educate the whole community. We are now urging men to give women ownership of coffee. Some have started it might take a while but we will get there,” she concludes.

The FTA Board members express their appreciation to the Society’s leadership. Giving a vote of thanks, the Board Chairman, Mr Charbel el Fakhri said: “It was a great experience to discover the farm and see how work is done it is my first time in a coffee farm.”

Wambui Chege also an independent Board member said, “’It has been heartwarming to see how Premium has been utilised, I’m also impressed that 50% of their sales is Fairtrade. I would like to see more young people get into coffee because #Fairtrade is truly improving lives.”