December 9, 2019

What’s Causing The Generation Gap in Kenyan Coffee Production?


With its fertile soil, frequent rainfall, and high altitudes, Kenyan land naturally possesses many of the qualities required for growing quality coffee. This made it the country’s top foreign exchange earner for many years – but times are rapidly changing. 

Coffee production has fallen by two-thirds since the eighties, and forecasts predict that outputs will hit a fifty-year low in 2019/2020. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that younger farmers are increasingly turning away from coffee farming as an income source and way of life.

Currently, the average age of Kenyan coffee farmers is advanced, with over half of them aged 60 and above. Without millennial aged farmers to take up the mantle, the future of Kenya’s coffee production could be further compromised. 

Here’s what could be causing this generation gap and keeping Kenyan millennials from pursuing coffee production.

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Chuaga Kinuthia in the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology Coffee Lab. Credit: David Ngibuini 

Kenyan Millennials: Urbanised, Educated, & in Debt 

While coffee production is dominated by older Kenyans, they only make up a tiny amount of the country’s population. Nearly three quarters (37.5 million) of Kenyans are under the age of 30, according to the African Institute for Development Policy. The reasons for this age group turning away from coffee production as a career and source of livelihood is complex.

Kenyans millennials (in other words, those born between the late eighties and early 2000s), differ significantly from previous generations. Education was and is a top priority for their parents, and many households spent a significant part of their incomes on it, as they believe it will ensure their children have a chance at a better life.

These efforts are seen as far as their higher education. According to a recent white paper released by recruitment company BrighterMonday on the digital marketplace, over half of Kenyan millennials have a graduate degree.

Despite this, nine out of ten unemployed adults are 35 and under, which has led to a population struggling to repay student loans, getting into debt, and delaying milestones such as marriage and procreation. It’s no surprise then that when asked, they list their top desirable job traits as job security, proximity to home, and good pay. 

Coffee production isn’t a job for the impatient, as the plant can take up to four years to progress from seed to harvest stage. In addition, only one harvest is possible a year. For those seeking immediate, long term financial support, this makes it an unsuitable path to pursue. 

To find out more about why current generations could be turning away from producing coffee, I visited the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology Coffee Lab, where local coffee farmers take their coffee samples for quality control. I asked Head Coffee Technologist, Chuaga Kinuthia, on why he thinks millennials are turning away from farming coffee. 

He responded that “Millennials are a generation that want everything [to be] instant”, adding that “In most cases you expect farmers over forty to visit the lab [to test their coffee]. Rarely do you get anyone under forty seeking services from the lab”.

Parchment dries on beds at Maguta Coffee Estate in Kenya. Credit: David Ngibuini

Unique Barriers to Entering Coffee Production

Impatience and a demand for instant gratification are considered to be common traits amongst millennials around the world. However, when it comes to coffee production, Kenyan millennials face unique challenges preventing them from involvement.

Parchment and coffee husks at Maguta Coffee Estate in Nyeri, Kenya. Photo credit: Stephen Kahiga

A Lack of Role Models

With many young Kenyans growing up in cities or moving to urbanised areas for formal education or employment, the generational succession that usually takes place on smallholder farms has been disrupted.

The majority of Kenyan coffee is farmed by smallholder producers. By encouraging their children and grandchildren to pursue formal secondary and tertiary education, they inadvertently become deskilled – in other words, their farming skills become neglected and farming itself becomes downgraded as a potential occupation. 

It results in generation that has never witnessed coffee farming first hand, as their parents or grandparents did. As Chuaga says, “coffee farming is best learnt by farmers by means of an apprenticeship. [A possible] reason why the youth may not be interested in farming coffee is because it wasn’t instilled [in them] from a young age”.

Despite the above, there are a few millennials who will become involved in coffee production. These are usually those who have inherited it from their parents. This brings with it its own set of challenges.

Those hoping to take over a farm from their parents often have to wait until they’re at an advanced age themselves before they inherit it. Many farmers are reluctant to pass over land to their children due to a lack of information on what land succession involves and costs. Others fail to document their ownership legally, which complicates inheritance even further. 

Victor Kanyingi at his workplace in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo Credit: David Ngibuini

Negative Perceptions

Coffee production around the world has faced significant obstacles in the past few years, and the Kenyan industry is no exception. By witnessing the impact poor pricing, unpredictable climate change, and other factors have had on their parents and grandparents, many Kenyan millennials view it as a job prone to hardship and uncertainty. 

I spoke to someone who grew up in such circumstances to get more insight into this. Victor Kanyingi is a medical insurance underwriter who currently works in Nairobi, but was raised on a coffee farm in Kiambu. He left the farm at 21 to get a university education and later started his career at an insurance firm in the city. 

I asked Victor if he’d one day be interested in producing coffee like his parents did. He replied by saying that “I don’t think coffee is a very profitable crop, after seeing my parents abandon their coffee farm because it wasn’t making financial sense to keep running it. I think if I ever venture into farming, I’d farm avocados. This seems more viable, because avocados are much easier to produce and there is a huge potential demand for exporting avocado to the Chinese market.”

Many Kenyan farmers have made this switch, as avocados are well suited to Kenya’s climate, easier to cultivate, and require less special care than coffee does. It earns farmers more money while freeing them up to spend time on other crops, such as bananas and papayas.

With Kenya officially entering into a trade deal to export 40% of its avocados to China, it’s likely demand for this alternative crop will only increase. 

Those still focusing on coffee production are facing mounting challenges from other areas, including the environment. Coffee producers have recently had to deal with prolonged dry spells, coffee berry disease, coffee leaf rust, and late blight. This is driving down the volume and quality of their harvests – further alienating young farmers from pursuing it.

Coffee blossoms on a coffee tree in Maguta Coffee Estate, Nyeri, Kenya. Credit: Deep Sea Studios

Complex & Costly Regulatory Hurdles

Coffee is one of the most regulated crops in Kenya, with multiple prohibitions and restrictions controlling everything from how it’s planted and uprooted to how its stored, marketed, and branded. 

Most coffee is grown by small-scale farmers, who will then sell it to cooperative-owned factories for milling and processing. Each cooperative is represented by a marketing agent, who will further process and store it before either auctioning it at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange or selling it directly to a buyer.

Here, producers have limited say or control over what happens to their crops. As one farmer says, you can’t be sure whether the miller is selling your coffee or what is happening to it. It also means that they cannot track their coffee or observe how it’s handled once it leaves their hands.

The current system is one that many feel isn’t working in favour of producers, as it may limit their share of the FOB price, and result in long waiting periods for them to receive payment. Many farmers feel that a lack of transparency, cooperative mismanagement and other factors are hindering the sector. It also means that they take on most of the risk. It’s something that can discourage those looking to enter the industry.

As Chuaga asks, “Why would the youth want to get into a business that is highly regulated and political? They’d prefer a less stringent business [such as] white collar jobs or producing flowers in greenhouses which requires less land coverage and is easier to export.”

Youth coffee farmers receive training and mentoring by Régine Guion at Maguta Coffee Estate. Credit: Ignas Butenas

It’s evident that millennial aged Kenyans could benefit from being involved in coffee farming, and that this could bring the country closer to where was in terms of production and quality several years ago. However, this won’t be possible unless steps are taken to address the issues they’re facing. This has already started to take place.

Experts are working on developing drought and disease resistant coffee plants that will thrive despite changing climate conditions, and the government has set aside funds it will use to finance coffee producers. In addition, leaders recognise that there’s a need to reduce processing and milling costs, revamp the brand image of coffee locally, and include younger farmers in production.

While these changes won’t happen overnight, it could be what’s needed to improve the perception and benefits of coffee production – and get young farmers involved once again.

Enjoyed this? Read Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Featured photo: A youth coffee farmer holding parchment and coffee husks at Maguta Coffee Estate in Nyeri, Kenya. Credit: Deep Sea Studios

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