The history of coffee in Kenya


In the first part of the 20th century, the land was settled by British and European farmers who made a fortune growing coffee on the backs of Kenyan workers. By the 1930s, the power of the farmers had become very strong. The more than 1 million members of the Kikuyu tribe who were in their land now had real claims to the land, according to the Europeans. To protect their interest, the wealthy Europeans banned them from growing coffee, imposed a shack tax, and paid them less and less. The Kikuyu were forced to leave their land and go to the cities to survive. This legal enslavement of the population continued until the British government relinquished control in 1960. Despite the bloodshed and slavery, Kenyan coffee has flourished and is one of the best cups in the world.

The world's poorest farmers

All coffee grown in Kenya is Arabica, grown on the rich volcanic soil found in the country's highlands. Today, approximately 250,000 Kenyans are employed in coffee production. Most of the production is by smallholders who are members of cooperatives that process their own coffee. Despite the uniqueness of Kenyan coffee, Kenya's coffee farmers remain among the poorest in the world. In 2001, a farmer producing a 1 007 kg crop would have earned only £20.14 for his labour ; this same coffee is available in specialist shops for US$10 per pound.

Ruiru 11

Recently, Kenyan farmers introduced the hybrid Ruiru 11 plant and it has caused concern among true Kenyan coffee lovers. This is because it may lack the traditional attributes of Kenyan coffee that coffee lovers love. The Kenya Coffee Board is trying to promote Ruiru 11 as an improvement for farmers, but their efforts are overshadowed by rumours that it tastes like a lower quality coffee from another country. Only time will tell who is right.

Why Kenyan coffee is sought after

Kenyan coffee has bright acidity and great sweetness with a dry, winey aftertaste. A really good Kenyan coffee will also have a blackcurrant flavour and aroma. Some of the best rated coffees in the world come from Kenya and as a choice coffee it gains admiration when cupped. Kenya enjoys this level of quality through a government scheme that offers farmers rewards for producing better quality coffee. This policy has led to continuous improvement and consistent quality in a cup of coffee. Every batch of coffee in Kenya, coming from a large farm or a small cooperative, has to undergo rigorous quality testing by the Coffee Board of Kenya.