July 4, 2022

Understanding land succession in Kenyan coffee production


Kenya is Africa’s fifth-largest coffee producer and is renowned for its high-quality arabica production. This is thanks to the country’s high altitudes and rich soils, as well as the hard work of an estimated 800,000 Kenyan coffee farmers.

However, the country faces a number of issues, including an ageing coffee farmer population, which is causing a generational gap to form, as younger generations are becoming increasingly disinterested in coffee production.

Alongside this issue of an ageing population, however, land succession can create further concern for the future of Kenyan coffee production. To learn more about it, I spoke with three Kenyan coffee producers. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on “Nyumba Kumi Kahawa”: The initiative rejuvenating coffee production in Kenya.

Workers removing defective coffee beans from crop

Land succession in Kenyan coffee production

While there have certainly been increasing efforts from various stakeholders in the Kenyan coffee supply chain to encourage younger generations to work in coffee production, a generational divide still remains.

It’s estimated that more than 50% of Kenya’s coffee farmers are 60 or above. Naturally, this means that soon enough, many older farmers will quickly reach a point when they can no longer run farms on their own. This leads to several issues, including declines in coffee production and coffee quality.  

There is also some hesitation from farmers about passing on land and coffee plants to their children. This is largely due to concerns that younger people will either sell the farms, rather than focusing on scaling them.

This is also exacerbated by the issue of inheritance. When a coffee farm owned by a single farmer is shared by their family, often multiple family members have differences in opinion when it comes to what to do with it.

Some may want to sell it, while others may want to farm. In many cases, the land ends up being divided into much smaller parcels, which are then individually sold or used for cultivation. However, in some of these cases, the land itself may not be of a significant enough area to make coffee farming economically viable.

As such, this means that when older relatives who grow coffee pass away, their younger family members end up being forced to sell the farm, irrespective of their interest in coffee production. Many of them are also inclined to migrate from rural areas to cities, mainly because they believe there are more viable economic and educational opportunities for them in urban areas.

However, it’s important to note that in some cases, many rural Kenyans do actually plan to return to their home in the longer term. In a survey from non-profit Research Triangle Institute, 76% of young Kenyan men said they had permanent plans to return to their rural areas of origin.

This can encourage some of Kenya’s older coffee farmers to entrust their land to younger generations, but it is by no means a guarantee that coffee production will thrive into the future. 

In these instances, the owners can educate younger people on farming and harvesting best practices, so that farms can remain in operation for years to come.

Kenyan coffee producer assessing coffee trees

What happens to coffee farms when land is sold?

The issues around land succession in coffee production are the most prominent in the counties surrounding the country’s capital of Nairobi. For example, the northwestern county of Kiambu was once one of the top coffee-producing regions in Kenya, until the region went through a period of intense development and urbanisation some years ago.

This is largely a result of the rising demand for housing and accommodation in Nairobi, which has left entire coffee farms abandoned or sold.

Some of these farms were sold off by younger people who inherited them from their parents, as investing in coffee production is seen as less economically viable than selling the farm outright. 

In cases when the land is divided between multiple siblings or relatives, it can be difficult to reach a unanimous decision with what to do with the land – particularly in regards to coffee production. 

For example, if five beneficiaries inherit the land, it’s unlikely that all of them will want to use the land in the same way, or agree to equally sell the plots of land.

This means that some parts of the divided land may be sold and developed in a way that negatively affects coffee production, such as decreasing the fertility of the soil. This ultimately makes it difficult for any coffee farming to be economically viable or sustainable – even if some of the beneficiaries are willing to invest in it.

Furthermore, unless the original owner of the land leaves behind clear instructions on what should be done to the coffee trees, there is often little expertise left in the family to justify retaining it.

Once the farm is sold, the land is then usually divided among a number of different developers, which offer a large lump sum of money that can be appealing to many young people.

Paul Kariuki is a coffee farmer from an area in Kenya where coffee production is declining.

“Once a farm is sold, the first thing that happens is land division,” he explains. “This can sometimes even result in high tensions and, in some cases, violence between the parties purchasing the land.”

He adds that even when there is no conflict, dividing the land requires more infrastructure, which in turn can affect the fertility of the land.

“Ultimately, the increase in development means that the land cannot be used for any significant coffee production,” he says. 

Naturally, urban development also means that the coffee trees are then uprooted and disposed of to make space for buildings and other infrastructure. 

Francis Wambugu is a smallholder coffee producer in Kenya. He tells me that younger generations sometimes don’t understand the damage caused by uprooting coffee trees – both to their own finances and the wider coffee industry. 

“It’s better to lease the land than sell it altogether, otherwise you will never make more money from the land,” he says. “Coffee farmers should advise their children on proper land management and reinforce that the land is supposed to benefit future generations, too.”

Workers sorting through coffee beans.

What are the perceptions of coffee farming?

Francis tells me that his sons will be able to inherit his farm once he retires from coffee production – something that he hopes will happen.

“Coffee farming has been a significant part of my life, so it would be sad to see my coffee trees uprooted for other crops,” he says. “I think that wider misconceptions about coffee production are often to blame [for young people abandoning coffee farms].

“Most parents in Kenya don’t want their children to work in agriculture, especially if they are educated,” he adds.

However, Francis tells me that the Covid-19 pandemic has actually spurred a change in mentality in some cases. He says that now more than ever, more younger people are returning to farms to assist with coffee production, but many still lack the necessary skills for high-quality farming.

“Older generations need to support younger people with best farming practices,” Francis says. “Coffee is a unique crop and it requires care and attention – we as coffee farmers are the best people to teach our children about production.”

ripe and unripe coffee cherries on a Kenyan coffee tree

What are the solutions?

An ageing farmer population and growing disinterest in coffee production are major concerns for Kenya’s coffee industry, so what can be done to resolve them?

Paul suggests that coffee producers firstly need to leave behind clear guidelines on how to best utilise the land.

“Younger generations should avoid uprooting coffee trees,” he tells me. “Coffee grows well when intercropped with other plants, and it won’t hinder the growth of other food crops, such as maize or beans. 

“In fact, some food crops, such as beans, can benefit when intercropped with coffee,” he adds.

Gerald Muriithi is a retired coffee farmer from Kenya. He tells me that his two sons inherited his coffee farm and continued to work in coffee – something that he is proud of.

“I taught my sons from an early age about the benefits of coffee production,” he says. “I am happily retired knowing that they continue to grow coffee.” 

Gerald believes younger generations need to be patient with the coffee farms they inherit.

“Once you inherit the land, you need to add value to it, not destroy it,” he explains. “Coffee production has the ability to provide younger people with an income for many years.”

However, many Kenyan coffee farmers are still concerned about the future of the country’s coffee sector. Improving access to coffee education to bridge the gap in the supply chain allows younger people to understand more about the value of coffee production.

For example, maintaining around 150 coffee trees can produce between 2,250kg and 2,500kg of cherry per harvest. This means a substantial amount of land can be required for farmers to operate a profitable farm, especially with fluctuating coffee prices.

As an alternative, as Francis mentions, younger generations who inherit land can lease it to other producers instead. This gives them a recurring long-term income from the land while still supporting the country’s coffee industry.

A Kenyan coffee producer tends to coffee seedlings

In order to encourage young people to take part in coffee production, industry stakeholders need to offer more opportunities for education to support this transition. This includes local organisations, community leaders, and experienced farmers.

Ultimately, the more young people are involved in Kenyan coffee production, the higher the chances are that the country’s coffee industry will be able to grow in the future.

However, whether or not the problems around land succession in coffee production and an ageing agricultural population will worsen remains to be seen. If this is to change, significant investment in training and education are undoubtedly essential.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on renewing generational interest in Kenyan coffee production.

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