Processing is one of the most important stages in the coffee supply chain. There are a number of ways to process coffee, and each method has its own unique effect on quality and flavour.
One of the most important steps in coffee production is the primary processing stage. This is because the margin of error is small; one mistake at this juncture can result in a substantial loss of quality.
In the Kenyan coffee sector, primary processing largely takes place at washing stations. Washing stations are found in countries across the entire Bean Belt, but Kenya in particular has many of them, as much of the country’s coffee is washed.
I spoke with two Kenyan coffee professionals to understand how typical Kenyan washing stations operate, as well as some of the challenges that coffee farmers face when using them. Read on to find out what they said.
You might also like our article on renewing generational interest in Kenyan coffee production.
What is a washing station?
David Gitonga manages a washing station in Kenya. He explains that in the country, these stations are actually often referred to as factories.
“Washing stations are found in all parts of Kenya where coffee is grown,” he says. “Almost all of the coffee that is produced in the country is sent to these factories for wet processing.”
Apart from large estates which typically own wet mills, most coffee is collectively processed at dedicated washing stations.
“However, there are a few individual producers who own pulping machines and therefore do not need to send their coffee to washing stations,” he adds.
Once cherries are delivered to the stations by producers, the first step is to sort them. Most factories have officials who oversee sorting; their role is mainly to ensure that all foreign objects (such as small stones or sticks) are removed from the cherry.
The coffee is then weighed by another official who records the weight of the delivered cherry on a slip. However, at some more modern washing stations, there are digital scales which automatically generate delivery slips.
After weighing, the coffee is then taken to cherry hoppers. This is where coffee from several farms is combined for the first time. After being poured into these giant hoppers, the sorted cherry is transported for pulping.
During peak season, this process can go on for days at a time.
Sarah Wambui is an agribusiness expert and washing station manager based in Kiambu County, Kenya.
“Sometimes you can stay at the factory for two consecutive days,” she says.
After the cherries are pulped, the seeds are then soaked in water to remove the mucilage. At many stations, there are large tanks which are capable of holding the parchment coffee.
However, it is currently illegal in Kenya for buyers to purchase parchment directly from farmers, so many are instead paid for cherry. Individuals are also not allowed to deal directly with farmers, and must instead buy through co-operatives.
This is partly because in Kenya, the farmers’ involvement in the coffee supply chain ends once the cherry is delivered to washing stations. Farmers then have to wait for payment, which happens on an annual basis.
David explains that washing stations determine the dates and times for farmers to deliver cherry to buyers. They typically publish this information on posters or bulletin boards in local shops or places close to these stations.
Considering location and design
Many washing stations in Kenya are built on river banks. This is so they can have easy access to water that is used for washing and pulping the coffee.
However, the topography of the land can make this difficult. To resolve this issue, some washing stations invest in pump systems, building them on the riverbank and running the pump through to large storage tanks.
Sarah emphasises the importance of keeping water nearby when establishing washing stations.
“If possible, factories should border rivers,” she says. “This way, you don’t have to invest in pumps or large reservoirs, which saves a lot of time and money.”
Washing stations can be designed differently, but they generally function in similar ways. Depending on the level of investment in the station, some of them have more modern infrastructure and machinery.
In more remote areas, washing stations have more basic equipment, but David tells me that as a general rule, all stations require a pulper, fermentation tanks, and storage facilities.
Typically, the headquarters or head offices of local co-operatives are located at one of the member’s washing stations.
“Co-operatives and washing stations are separate entities,” David explains. “Even if the head office is in the compound, the station runs independently.”
Operational structure at Kenyan washing stations
In Kenya, washing stations are generally owned by farmer co-operative societies (FCS). Every individual station must also register with the relevant local or regional authority.
Most co-operative societies operate several stations, which are individually owned by the respective co-operatives. However, co-operative members rarely oversee or manage activity at these stations.
“The co-operative acts as more of a guide over activity at a washing station,” David explains. “The final decisions still lie with employees at the factory, whereas the decisions made by the co-op can be applied to all stations in every co-op society.”
Most management teams in washing stations include a factory manager, a treasurer, a chairman, a secretary, and support staff. The manager, treasurer, and chairman positions are often re-elected every few years.
The factory manager is responsible for all activity at washing stations and oversees all staff members. As part of quality control, these stations sometimes employ qualified professionals to manage the fermentation stage. This is because maintaining coffee quality at this point in the supply chain is particularly important.
Washing station membership is voluntary. Each member – usually a producer – receives their own membership number in exchange for a small registration fee. They will then be able to process their cherries at a station once they are delivered.
Members are also responsible for electing their leaders. The washing station, meanwhile, is responsible for choosing its own mill agent and marketing agent, who are elected every year.
Addressing challenges in Kenya’s washing stations
In Kenya, many washing stations still use traditional disk pulpers. Although these machines are reliable, they generally have been used for extensive periods of time, meaning they usually require more maintenance than newer pulpers.
Some modern factories are now investing in eco-pulpers which have in-built demucilagers, meaning that the parchment doesn’t require further fermentation. This can reduce processing time, costs, and water usage.
Once the fermentation stage is complete, the parchment is taken to raised drying beds. All washing stations have their own drying beds, but many are abandoned because of fluctuating coffee prices and recent reduction in volumes of Kenyan coffee production.
Many drying beds are constructed from wood, which means that they are highly susceptible to rot and termite damage. This has led some stations to invest in metal drying beds, which are less vulnerable to weather and pest damage.
Most washing stations in Kenya have “conditioning” bins in large store rooms. These are used to contain parchment after the coffee is moved from the drying beds, so that the coffee’s moisture content is stable before it’s transported to dry mills.
Parchment stores at washing stations are usually also guarded. This is because if parchment is lost or stolen, farmers will not receive money for the cherry they delivered – making them vulnerable while the coffee is stored there.
Some washing stations in the country are in the process of becoming 4C and Fair Trade certified. While this can be a lengthy and costly process, there is potential for farmers to receive higher prices as a result of these certifications.
In recent years, it’s become clearer that more and more washing stations in Kenya are starting to modernise, investing in metal drying beds, newer pulpers, and other key technology.
And despite the challenges that washing stations sometimes face, Sarah tells me that she thinks there is potential for producers to overcome them.
“The future looks bright for Kenya’s washing stations,” she concludes. “With increasing payout rates, the farmers can be optimistic about the future.”
Enjoyed this? Then try our article exploring popular Kenyan coffee varieties.
Photo credits: Peter Gakuo, NICE Coffee
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