Exploring coffee consumption in Kenya
Kenya is the fifth-largest coffee producer in Africa. According to data from the International Coffee Organisation, the country produced approximately 775,000 60kg bags in 2020.
The country exports around 95% of its coffee to many international markets, with the US and Germany importing the highest volumes.
This means that the remaining 5% of the country’s coffee production is consumed domestically. And while tea consumption remains high in Kenya, the number of people drinking coffee is growing.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that Kenya’s domestic coffee consumption will rise to 43,000 60kg bags by the end of 2022. While the country’s reputation for high-quality arabica production seems set to grow, what’s in store for Kenyan coffee consumers in the years to come?
I spoke to Ritesh Doshi from Spring Valley Coffee and Rozy Rana from Dormans Coffee to learn more.
You may also like our article on renewing generational interest in Kenyan coffee production.
A profile of Kenyan coffee production
Although Kenya’s volumes of coffee production have fluctuated somewhat over the past few years, the East African country is well known for its specialty coffees.
It has five distinct coffee-growing regions. These are Central (Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountain range), Western (Kisii, Nyanza, and Bungoma), the Great Rift Valley (Nakuru and Kericho), Eastern (Machakos, Embu, and Meru), and Coastal (Taita hills).
These regions grow a range of varieties, including SL-14, SL-28, SL-34, Batian, Ruiru 11, and K7. The SL group, selected from the Bourbon variety in the 1930s, has helped to significantly improve the quality and yields of Kenyan coffee over the years.
In addition to its unique varieties, the country is also known for its distinctive grading system. Coffee beans are graded according to their size, shape, and overall quality. These grades are AA, AB, PB, C, E, and TT.
Washed processing is the most common method in Kenya, giving coffees an acidic, bright flavour profile. It has historically been used by Kenyan farmers to create a more repeatable flavour profile; however, the market for natural Kenyan coffee is also growing.
The country’s trading system also makes it unique. Coffees are graded by the Kenya Coffee Producers and Traders Association (KCPTA), before they are traded through a central auction run by the Nairobi Coffee Exchange.
However, most coffee is first handled by “coffee marketing agents”, who sometimes limit direct purchases from smallholder producers.
Changing coffee culture
Kenya is a former British colony, so it’s not surprising that it’s a predominantly tea-drinking country.
As with many other countries which consume higher volumes of tea, coffee consumption remains comparatively low. Moreover, lower quality instant coffee is dominant.
Ritesh Doshi is the owner and CEO of Spring Valley Coffee in Nairobi. He is one of the few licensees in Kenya who is able to purchase coffees directly from smallholder producers.
Ritesh tells me: “Coffee does not even come close to comprising 10% of all beverages consumed in Kenya. However, this is changing and coffee consumption is growing.”
According to Statista, Kenyans consumed around 500 tonnes of coffee in 2009. However, by 2020, that number had more than tripled to over 1,500 tonnes.
It’s believed that Kenya’s growing middle class populations in urban areas are driving coffee consumption, most likely because of their higher disposable incomes.
Much like in classic European coffee culture, Kenyans prefer to spend several hours in coffee shops to socialise.
“Speed is not typically a part of Kenyan coffee culture,” Ritesh says. “People come into cafés to sit down to enjoy their coffees.”
This could be a result of historically high levels of tea consumption. In many tea-drinking countries, traditional tea ceremonies can take several hours, encouraging a much more leisurely interaction with the beverage.
Unlike other international consuming countries, such as the US and China, convenience appears to be less of a purchasing factor for Kenyan coffee drinkers. However, as domestic coffee consumption gradually increases, there could be more demand for on-the-go coffee.
Is specialty coffee becoming more popular?
When comparing coffee consumption in Kenya to that in the neighbouring countries of Ethiopia and Uganda, there are some similarities and differences. According to figures from the ICO, coffee consumption across both Ethiopia and Uganda is much higher than in Kenya.
Similar to Kenya’s relationship with tea, in Ethiopia, coffee ceremonies are an integral part of everyday life for many people.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, cities such as Kampala are experiencing a rise in specialty coffee shops, similar to that in Nairobi.
However, overall, instant coffee is the most commonly consumed coffee product in Kenya. Market Research claims the country’s soluble coffee market is set to be worth more than US $434 million by 2025.
In Kenya, as with many other producing countries, the volumes of instant coffee consumed are far higher than those of specialty coffee.
Ritesh explains why soluble coffee is so popular in Kenya.
“In both rural and urban areas, if you ask for a coffee, you will almost always receive a Nescafé instant coffee with milk and sugar.”
Some Kenyans prepare their coffees by boiling the beans and filtering the resulting brew, which most likely results in a weaker coffee than other brewing methods.
However, Ritesh tells me that there is a “slowly growing community” in the country who are brewing with the French press and filter methods.
Some coffee companies in Kenya, like Dormans, are helping to make higher quality coffees more accessible to consumers.
Rozy Rana is Managing Director of Dormans Coffee. “We were one of the first companies to make coffee more accessible in Kenya,” she says. “We helped to establish initiatives such as the Kenyan Barista Championships to help encourage more internal consumption.”
The 18th edition of the Kenyan Barista Championships was held in 2020, which included over 60 participants. In contrast, the first competition had fewer than ten participants – indicating growing interest in specialty coffee.
At the 2021 World Barista Championships, Kenyan competitor Martin Shabaya placed fifth in the finals. This highlighted the emerging specialty coffee scene in the country on an international level.
What does the future hold for domestic coffee consumption?
As with any other coffee consuming country, there are general trends emerging in the Kenyan market. Rozy explains that across the entire coffee sector, consumption is increasing and more brands are starting to appear.
“There is a greater variety of coffee brands in supermarkets, especially compared to ten years ago,” she says. “More new brands are looking to capitalise on the growth in consumption.”
She adds that the country’s capital city of Nairobi is at the forefront of the growing specialty coffee scene.
“There has been an increasing aspiration among younger consumers to be ‘trendy’ by visiting coffee shops,” Rozy says.
Ritesh believes that the growing popularity of espresso and milk-based drinks is contributing to the new specialty scene. People in Kenya are drinking beverages such as cappuccinos, lattes, and flat whites more than ever.
Coffee shops also present an opportunity for baristas to educate consumers on the supply chain, with a specific focus on origins and flavour profiles.
“We’ve been able to do this with information cards which tell customers about our producers and our roast profiles,” says Ritesh. “We were also doing Saturday morning cuppings before the pandemic, which was a great way to introduce our local community to coffee tasting.”
Naturally, as Kenyan consumers learn more about specialty coffee, consumption could start to increase – opening up a potentially thriving market.
And with the problem of an ageing farmer population in Kenya, introducing younger people to specialty coffee could inspire a new generation of coffee producers.
Kenya is well-established as a coffee producing country, but its market of coffee consumers is still relatively small. However, there’s no doubt that this can change and that the county’s specialty coffee consumption could grow in the years to come.
Either way, as Kenyan coffee consumption grows, it will be interesting to see which trends emerge and how coffee professionals in the country look to innovate.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how to roast Kenyan coffee.
Photo credits: Spring Valley Coffee, Dormans Coffee
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