February 23, 2021

“Nyumba Kumi Kahawa”: The initiative rejuvenating coffee production in Kenya

Kenya has been a major global coffee producer for more than 100 years. Although the crop was only introduced to the country in the late 19th century, the reputation of Kenyan coffee grew rapidly in the decades that followed.

However, over the past three decades, production numbers have fallen because of price instability, a generational gap, and issues related to the country’s climate. In 1986, estimates claim that Kenya comprised some 3.1% of all coffee grown in the world. Today, that figure has fallen to somewhere around 0.5%.

Since the start of the decline, there have been a number of attempts by both public and private sector organisations to reinvigorate the sector. Many of these have been unsuccessful. Billions of Kenyan shillings have been wasted and coffee farmers have suffered. Some have even chosen to abandon coffee production altogether in search of more stable sources of income.

However, amid the uncertainty, some coffee farmers have been exploring new ways of reviving coffee production. One approach that has been effective is the “Nyumba Kumi Kahawa” initiative. Read on to learn more about what it entails.

You may also like our article on the generation gap in Kenyan coffee production.

Origins: The first Nyumba Kumi initiative

Meaning “ten houses” in Swahili, the Nyumba Kumi policy was initially introduced as a model of community policing. It was designed to complement the Kenyan government’s security policy.

The initiative was launched as a way of tackling violence. It brought together groups of ten households to form a kind of neighbourhood security watch that would break up any fighting.

In 2017, a small group of farmers borrowed from the Nyumba Kumi initiative in an attempt to reinvigorate the country’s coffee sector. The idea was similar: local coffee producers would band together in groups to support one another.

After a modest start, the number of farms in these groups steadily rose to three, then four, then five, then 10. These groups started looking for washing stations to process their coffee in groups, pooling their resources to keep costs manageable for each individual member.

Society officials visited the Nyumba Kumi Kahawa groups’ farms as part of the requirements for admission. They were surprised to find that they were well-organised and producing high-quality coffee. Up until that point, the area they represented had a poor reputation for abandoning and neglecting its coffee farms.

Nyumba Kumi Kahawa members then sought out a farmers society, which agreed to help them process, export, and market coffees. In return for membership, the society guaranteed they would take on the responsibilities of processing and sale.

This was an attractive prospect for the Nyumba Kumi Kahawa farmers, as the society exported coffee directly to a major European importer.

Peter Gicuki is a young member of the Nyumba Kumi Kahawa initiative. He says that until the group was set up, he was on the brink of abandoning coffee production altogether.

With the generational gap in coffee production in Kenya already a major issue, this initiative proved to him and other young farmers that there was potential for his farm. It showed him that there were others in his area that he could collaborate with.

“When I inherited my coffee farm, my first instinct was to uproot the entire plantation and plant other crops,” he says. “Now I am glad I didn’t. The coffee is paying for all my bills and I can now afford a better life.”

Challenges for Nyumba Kumi Kahawa producers

Despite the progress made by producers in these groups, the coffee sector in Kenya still faces a number of challenges. Most notably, the majority of coffee varieties grown in Kenya remain highly susceptible to pests and diseases.

Outbreaks of coffee leaf rust are particularly common. Caused by the Hemileia vastatrix fungus, coffee leaf rust can devastate entire coffee farms. While it is believed to have originated in East Africa, it is now largely prevalent all around the world; in 2012, an epidemic of coffee leaf rust was declared in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The work that goes into controlling and preventing coffee leaf rust ultimately results in higher production costs for farmers. They must dedicate labour and other resources to mitigating its spread (often by replanting infected plants with disease-resistant hybrids) or risk losing their entire crop.

However, these higher production costs are not passed on to the consumer just because the variety is disease-resistant. Instead, it’s the producers who ultimately bear the cost.

To tackle the problem of coffee leaf rust, collective efforts from Kenyan coffee have led to a strategy known as “top-working”.

Top-working is a vegetative propagation method where producers convert mature arabica trees of more susceptible varieties to modern disease-resistant varieties, such as Ruiru 11 or Batian, without uprooting or replanting. 

This is a common practice among Nyumba Kumi Kahawa farmers, as it is relatively low-cost and maintains the harvest from the original tree until it is ready to be pruned away.

Another challenge is the transport of crops from farms to the washing station. Most Nyumba Kumi Kahawa members are incredibly far away from the station used by the farmers society, which further adds to the cost of production.

The society has found a way around this. They deduct a small percentage from the final sale price in return for transporting farmers’ cherries to the washing station.

The society sends out vehicles to collect the cherries from each of the separate Nyumba Kumi Kahawa groups. Each group is assigned a designated meeting point. The society collects the cherries, and then processes them centrally.

This has proved to be a much more sustainable way of operating for both farmers and the society. It demonstrates how collaboration and mutual understanding have led to a more productive relationship. 

It has also encouraged people to reassess their view of coffee production as a sustainable means of income. Julius is a 26-year-old farmer who recently joined the initiative. He says that before Nyumba Kumi Kahawa, he never thought it would be possible to farm coffee. 

“I just leased an abandoned farm for six years and am already through with the clearing and planting of 135 SL-28 seedlings,” he says. “I hope to plant 65 when the rains start.”

Nyumba Kumi Kahawa: The future

For Kenyan coffee producers, the benefits of the Nyumba Kumi Kahawa initiative are clear. In the coming months and years, members believe the initiative will only spread wider and become stronger.

They say that younger farmers are starting to renew their interest in coffee production, and are learning new, more sustainable ways to grow coffee.

However, the founders of Nyumba Kumi Kahawa still feel as though they have work to do. Although the rate of decline has steadied, coffee production fell again in the 2019/20 harvest. It is still nowhere near the output of a few decades ago.

In Machakos County, some 63km southeast of Nairobi, more than 75% of farmers who were active in the 1980s have given up coffee production altogether, and moved on to other crops.

For the Nyumba Kumi Kahawa groups, it is incredibly important to continue urging farmers to join up and form their own groups of ten.

John Mwangi is one of the founders of the initiative. John tells me that in particular, their focus is on the younger generations. He says they they are encouraging them to “embrace a new dawn” of coffee production.

“It has been a fight from the very beginning, and at times we thought it was not worth it,” John says. “But the more bitter the fight, the sweeter the victory. We won’t stop until our dreams are realised.”

Coffee production in Kenya has suffered in the last few decades. Once considered a vital cash crop, diseases, climatic issues, a generational gap, and price instability have caused coffee production to become largely unsustainable for the farmers who once relied on it. 

However, the hard work and efforts by Nyumba Kumi Kahawa groups in recent years have shown that new life can be injected into the Kenyan coffee sector.

Not only have they found more productive ways of accessing technical assistance programmes, lowering their costs, and fending off diseases, they’ve also brought back a passion for coffee production among younger generations. And as these groups develop, the evidence that Kenyan coffee production is on the road to recovery only grows.

Enjoyed this? Then read our guide to Kenyan coffee production.

Photo credits: Datakid Musicman, Peter Gakuo

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