Information is power, as they say. Long long long time ago, the purchase decision in any transaction was based on the comparison of the final price of a product (commodity) offered by several suppliers (competitors). These competitors were very reluctant to share their price lists, and clients spent long hours collecting those lists in order to have all the necessary information to make the right choice. But the world has changed, today with a single click we can compare prices of an unlimited number of products and suppliers, so price lists have become old and public, rather than a secret element of strategic negotiation. Today what is most important is the value of the product, not its price.
We work hard to add value in coffee. If your product does not make any difference from the rest of the coffees in the market, it becomes a commodity. The price of a commodity is established as the point of equilibrium of supply and demand of future contracts. Price fluctuation (that is, the movement of the supply and demand curves) is affected by such a large number of variables that they are uncontrollable. For example, if there is a frost in Brazil, Sumatran coffees rise in price; And if there is an excess of production in Brazil, Sumatran coffees will lower their price; In both cases, without the Sumatran coffee farmer having moved a single finger.
Every coffee farm in the world, even the most reputable one, will produce good, medium and bad quality beans. Therefore, separating the better, bigger and denser beans from those lighter and defective, is key to maximize the financial result of the producer.
In Kenya, after a certain lot has been processed, it will be delivered to the Marketing Agent (MA) in parchment by the producer or cooperative. The MA then, will mill and grade the lot by shape and size, and give this lot an unique "Outturn Number" (ON), before delivering a sample to the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. This ON will be crucial to provide transparency and traceability to the system.
Just a few days ago, I walked into a coffee shop and bought a 250gr bag of Kenyan coffee for €20 approx. While I'm happy to pay that kind of money for a very good Kenya in a bag full of tasty promises, when I got home I found only disappointment.
It is an open secret within the specialty industry, that Kenyan coffees have been in a low the last couple of years, and probably it is one of the most controversial topics right now. As you may know, Kenya is one of the most prized origins within the specialty coffee world, it is sought by importers and roasters from all over the world as an origin of outstanding quality, intense sweetness, citrus/winey acidities and velvety bodies.
We would normally cup 500+ samples from Kenya each season, between origin and lab cuppings. Maybe the right number is something closer to 1,000 samples, between February and March each year since 2016. This year the quantity was lower for obvious reasons. And while it's common knowledge among coffee connoisseurs from around the world, that there has been a disruption in the quality of this great origin, we can discuss on the causes or how much it has been affected, but I don’t think anybody that understand well the Kenyan coffee industry, can deny there is a problem.
We pride in being very good connoisseurs of the coffee industry in Kenya and the country in general. Since 2013 we are constantly going at least twice a year (during main harvest and then at cupping/selection time); We have visited a large number of cooperatives in various regions; We know the reality, dreams and problems of coffee farmers; And it is without doubts, our favorite origin!
But as in all areas of life, nothing is perfect, and the Kenyan coffee industry is no exception. It is no mystery to anyone that agriculture is the cornerstone of the Kenyan economy, and the cooperative movement has a solid footprint that can be traced until just after independence in 1963.
Kenya is probably one of the most advanced producing countries, in the study and experimentation with the genetic diversity of Arabicas, and is far ahead of important countries such as Ethiopia for example.
On our last trip to Kenya we met the great "Dr. James", who works at the "Kenya Coffee Research Institute" station in Nyeri. In this place, he explained, how they are performing grafting of Ruiru 11 with SL 28, and the importance of its result for the future of the industry.
Every coffee farm in the world, even the most reputable one, will produce good and bad quality beans. Therefore, separating the bigger, heavier and denser beans from those lighter and defective ones, is key to maximize the benefit of the farmer.
In Kenya, after a certain lot has been processed, it will be delivered to the Marketing Agent (MA) in parchment by the farmer or cooperative. The MA will then mill and grade the lot by shape and size, and give this particular lot an unique "Outturn Number" (ON), before delivering it to the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. This ON system will be crucial to provide transparency and traceability to the system.
During the 1960s, to increase the food production around the world, and meet the demands of an extremely quick expanding population, it became imperative to change the methodologies of agriculture.
These initiatives were called "The Green Revolution" and involved the use of high yielding varieties, higher fertilizers dosages, intensive and mono cropping, the development of highly toxic and life damaging pesticides, among others.
Kenya is divided into 47 counties, and in only 18 coffee is produced.
Nyeri and Kirinyaga are definitely the most popular counties for traders and roasters in origin. As a consequence of the above, they are also the ones that obtain the highest prices in the auctions of the Nairobi Coffee Exchange.
So the million dollar question is: why Kiambu does not have the same relevance as its neighbors in the specialty coffee market?
And the answer is not as obvious as you might think.
If we analyze the type of cultivars used in the three counties, we find that the most common cultivated varietes (between 90 and 95%) are SL28 and SL34, which are as we have said, the ones that produce the best quality in the cup.
Let's look at the altitude, the average range of altitude in the cultivated areas is higher in Kiambu with 1860masl, followed by Nyeri with 1760m and Kirinyaga with 1605m.
Rain patterns. In the three counties are also similar, there are bimodal rain patterns which brings two wet seasons a year (therefore 2 flowerings and two harvests a year), with annual rainfall averages of 953 mm for Nyeri, 1098 mm for Kiambu and 1518 mm for Kirinyaga .
The composition of the soils is similar in all three counties. They are all red volcanic soils, rich in nutrients and organic matter.
And the processing method, exactly the same, fully washed process with double fermentation and sundried on African beds.
The only fundamental difference lies in the annual production of smallholders (who are the ones that produce the microlots we are all seeking for) and their respective cooperatives. Nyeri being the first of the country with 6630 Tons., which represents 21% of the total production, second is Kirinyaga with 5870 Tons., representing an 18.5% and sixth is Kiambu with 2560 Tons., representing a 8% of the total country. (Statistics provided by the Kenya Coffee Board for 2012)
From the above we can conclude that the success of the "trademark" Nyeri and Kirinyaga in detriment of Kiambu, is due exclusively to a matter of quantity and therefore overexposure in international markets, and not to the potential to produce quality. From a macro perspective, the various factors influencing high quality production are virtually identical in all three counties.
To finish, just say that it is undeniable that in Nyeri and Kirinyaga there are exceptional lots, but they are also in Kiambu; It's just a matter of seek, discover and blind cupping!
Enjoy your coffee ... from Kiambu