Crisis in a Coffee Cup

Kenya: Nothing to Show for Her 700 Trees

Oxfam protesters take mules loaded with coffee beans to the London Stock Exchange
A demonstrator brings a donkey loaded with sacks of coffee beans to the London Stock Exchange in a Sept. 18, 2002 protest (Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP).

Instead of being the solid undertaking she relied on, coffee farming is turning out to be a liability for Wanjiku Ndiang’ui in old age. For the last four years, the 82-year-old Kenyan woman cannot show anything tangible earned from her more than 700 coffee trees. “It has been a period of much toil and endurance because feeding myself has remained a problem,” she says.

“I believe God loves me because I am all alone, and whoever comes to visit me blesses me with either a kilogram of sugar, some maize flour, or other foodstuff,” she says. “But it is pathetic for some of my sons and daughters as their children cannot even go to school.”

Since 1998, coffee farmers in Kenya’s Nyeri district have been facing difficult times. That was the year payments for the crop started declining. Earlier, Ndiang’ui recalls, money was plentiful, and people in her Murunguru village of Nyeri municipality never had difficulty paying for the education of their children. Her late husband, Ndiang’ui Mwenja, was able to develop their 12-acre farm using proceeds from coffee. Currently Ndiang’ui says she is considering abandoning coffee farming altogether for food crops. “It is the only alternative left for old people like myself who do not have the strength to work for pay as laborers.”

As the prices in the world market continued to fall, confusion reigned in the local cooperative society, which used to buy her crop. Since the giant Tetu Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society was subdivided in 2000, Ndiang’ui has been selling her coffee at farm-gate price. And since she cannot get a buyer for all her fresh berries, she dries the rest for sale as mbuni (dry coffee berries). Prices are dictated by the buyers. Usually a two-kilogram tin of both mbuni and cherry go for only five shillings (6 cents). “You have to sell it at the prices that the buyers dictate because you need the money,” Ndiang’ui says.

The newly formed Githiru Cooperative Society must first clear an outstanding debt of more than 5 million shillings (US$63,820) before it can claim to be stable enough to cater to the financial needs of its members. It no longer extends loans to growers. Initially, farmers would get loans at the beginning of every school term to take care of fees for their children. Today the new primary cooperative societies formed after the split of the giant Tetu have been unable to cope. And to make things worse, coffee prices have been on a nose dive since the split, eroding farmers’ confidence in coffee.