To revive the coffee industry, we need a Marshall plan. The health of any industry is as good as the health of it key institutions.
Today, nearly all the key institutions in this sector are a pale shadow of their former selves.
And, nothing illustrates this point better than the present sorry predicament of the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union, the 70-year-old farmers’ company that used to mill all the coffee produced in the country.
When I started reporting coffee issues in the late 1980s, KPCU had a balance sheet size larger than most of these blue chip companies you see listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange today.
Coffee cooperatives were rich and powerful institutions, paying dividends and bonuses to farmers year in, year out.
The Coffee Board of Kenya, although State-controlled, operated more or less as a farmers’ company, the majority of its directors elected at an annual conference in which all coffee farming districts would be represented.
The Coffee Research Foundation was a well-funded, robust body conducting rigorous cutting-edge research on modern agronomical practices and passing it on to farmers. Ruiru 11, the pest-resistant seed variety was developed locally by our own researchers at this foundation.
I also enjoyed the politics. No crop in this country will give you better examples of how organised farmers can influence State policy or come together to resist interference into their affairs by power-hungry Government officials.
The Kenya Coffee Growers Association (KCGA) played a critical role on this score. Such was the influence the association commanded in the coffee industry that even in the days of the single-party dictatorship when what former President Moi said was law, coffee farmers would resist arbitrary Government decisions.
They had mastered lobby group politics and were always ready to confront and disagree with unpopular decisions by ministers of Agriculture.
I still remember how KCGA under the chairmanship of the late Zachariah Gakunju mobilised farmers in May 1987 to oppose a directive by President Moi to dissolve KPCU and to replace it with a proposed National Cooperative Coffee Union.
It was the regime’s way of eliminating or bringing under its control autonomous farmers’ organisations.
Earlier, the regime had dissolved the Kenya Farmers Association, which was a profitable body that had been created by European settler farmers in the colonial days to buy inputs in bulk and sell them at fair prices to farmers.
KCGA successfully organised the coffee farming fraternity to reject Moi’s proposal.
In March of the same year, the farmers angrily protested at an attempt by the Ministry of Agriculture to sack KPCU managing director Henry Kinyua and chief executive of the Cooperative Bank of Kenya Jason Kimbui from directorship of the Coffee Board of Kenya. Moi had to rescind the decision publicly.
I will stop there as I do not wish to be accused of dwelling in the nostalgic past. The point here is that in terms of activism and resistance to arbitrary State decisions, the coffee farmer was there long before the agitation by political classes and civil society for the Second Liberation started.
Where did the rain start beating us? Clearly, part of the problem was uncritical implementation of the Washington Consensus.
We applied liberalisation as if it was dogma and in the process dismantled the institutions and pillars upon which the coffee industry rested, without replacing them with new and more efficient ones.
Allowing more coffee millers to come in and challenge KPCU’s monopoly, and liberalising marketing were not bad decisions. But was the phasing and sequencing right? We dismantled existing buildings but made nonsense of it by starting to build new houses from the roof.
In the process, all those institutions and pillars that propped up the industry mutated into parasites whose only reasons for existence was to erode margins from the meagre payments which end up in the pocket of the poor farmer.
I read from a new European Union-funded consultancy report that KPCU directors have recently decided to pay themselves Sh100,000 per month irrespective of board attendance.
How on earth can we allow these directors to leave in opulence from the sweat of the poor farmer who continues to wallow in poverty? At the height of coffee farmer shareholder activism, these are the type of leaders who would have been voted out immediately.
In 1988, we exported 130,000 tonnes of coffee. Today, we export less than 55,000 tons. This is not a situation to respond to by mere tinkering. Massive investment is needed to rehabilitate the institutions.
We seem not to recognise the link between successful rural small-scale agriculture and national security and stability.
The unplanned mushrooming of slums in our major towns is a reflection of the collapse of rural agriculture. In a sense, the Mungiki menace is itself an offspring of the collapse of small-scale coffee sector in central Kenya.