Tucked at the bottom of a bumpy road near the centre of Nyeri town, Kirimara Estate is a picture-perfect scene of flourishing and organised agriculture.
Neat rows of bright green coffee trees emerge from rich reddish-brown soil. At the back of the farm, long drying beds are covered in coffee beans giving up their moisture to the heat of the tropical sun. In a shed nearby, large sacks of top quality beans sit, waiting to be taken away.
Despite running a tight ship and benefiting from optimal growing conditions, farm manager Julius Mwangi Macharia still faces an up-hill battle to make sure Kirimara Estate turns a profit.
â€œIn the last few years,â€ he says, â€œone of the biggest challenges weâ€™ve been facing is that, when the coffee prices go down, we are unable to break even, so most of the time weâ€™ve been unable to supply the required inputs to the farm.â€
And he is not alone. For the hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers in the country, the vagaries of international markets, which have been particularly capricious in recent years, have a direct impact on their production levels.
â€œThe cost of production is the basis for supply and demand. If, say, that cost is $1 and I manage to make way above that, more people are going to get into the business and youâ€™ll have a supply glut.
If prices go below a dollar, youâ€™ll see people taking less care of their production,â€ explained Mr Chris Jordan, director at Dormanâ€™s Coffee, a major coffee buyer.
Unsure of whether they are going to get their money back, never mind make a profit, several farmers have been reticent to invest in the fertilisers, pesticides, and manpower required to make their coffee trees flourish. This creates a vicious cycle as production levels plummet and farmers do not earn the revenue required to reinvest in their crops.
This difficult situation has made coffee growing unattractive to the younger generation. â€œThe coffee marketing chain takes quite a bit of time before you get your money from the sale of coffee.
The younger generation donâ€™t have that patience, they want their money yesterday, so they are not that keen on coffee,â€ says Dr Joseph Kimemia, director of research at the Coffee Research Foundation.
Because coffee can be a profitable cash crop when times are good, older farmers are also reticent to give up the goose for the times when it does lay golden eggs. As a result, the average age of coffee farmers is higher than in other agricultural sectors.
The draw of fast money has made some coffee farmers abandon the business entirely and sell their land. â€œUrbanisation has taken a lot of the coffee estates for real estate. Basically, around all urban centres in the country, real estate has become the in-thing,â€ adds Dr Kimemia.
All of these factors contribute to Kenyaâ€™s unusually low production levels. â€œWe average two kilogrammes per tree. Itâ€™s low and the potential is good. Youâ€™ve got farmers who produce 40 kilogrammes, but you get those who produce half a kilogramme. For us it is a challenge,â€ Dr Kimemia says.
Such challenges mean that Kenya is an insignificant player in the world coffee markets in terms of volumes. The country averages about 800,000 bags per year while Ethiopia does six million bags, Colombia 12 million, and Brazil almost 30 million.
â€œIn terms of volume, we donâ€™t even rank,â€ points out Dr Kimemia.
Yet the Kenyan coffee industry has an ace up its sleeve that allows it to still have a winning hand in the international coffee market: the quality of its product is unsurpassed.
â€œAh! It is a flavour from God,â€ explains Dr Kimemia. â€œIt is associated with the soils in which we grow our coffee… the very rich volcanic soil. The variety is also chosen very meticulously to make sure we only grow the top in terms of quality.â€
Farm manager Julius Macharia believes that farmers also play a critical role: â€œItâ€™s because of the care farmers take to grow this coffee because we actually look after it, right from flowering up to picking. All this time we have to do proper husbandry. Thatâ€™s why Kenyan coffee is liked worldwide.â€
Indeed, there is such an appreciation for Kenyan coffee that it commands a higher price, offering Kenyan farmers some shelter from fluctuating international markets. This is why the Coffee Board of Kenya (CBK) is developing a certification system for Kenyan coffee. Similar to Organic or Rainforest Alliance certifications, it will offer buyers a way to authenticate the origin of their purchase.
â€œWe are giving our coffee a mark of identity because when you travel to world capitals, you find everybody talking about high quality Kenyan coffee, but you have no way of authenticating it, no traceability of whether what they are offering is Kenyan coffee or whether they are just riding on the name,â€ explained Coffee Board of Kenyaâ€™s managing director Louise Wanjira.
The branding effort was unsuccessfully launched in 2010 when the CBK went ahead with the project without having fully developed the framework. But now with its almost complete framework for implementation, Ms Wanjira believes the re-launch this month will be successful.
The hope is that Kenyan coffee farmers will better capitalise on specialty markets where customers are willing to pay a premium for their morning brew.
â€œThere is a lot of interest from consumers to identify with what they are consuming,â€ expounds Ms Wanjira on the thinking behind the strategy.
Mr Jordan recognises that many food products have successfully capitalised on this kind of branding effort. â€œWe have geographic indications like Champagne, Parmesan cheese, Parma ham; thereâ€™s a movement to go in those directions and I think that thatâ€™s an interesting approach,â€ he said.
But, ultimately, it is not the branding effort in and of itself which is going to allow Kenyan coffee farmers to get a greater return on their coffee.
â€œInternational consumers will ultimately drive that process and the consumer is globally demanding more traceability and transparency, and that is what is ultimately going to build efficient supply chains and ensure that the farmers will get more return for their coffee,â€ he argued.
Another way of growing the Kenyan coffee industry and getting more money into coffee farmersâ€™ pockets is quite simple; getting them to produce more coffee.
Stakeholders in the industry have thus started campaigns to help farmers to achieve their cropsâ€™ potential.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a single message: double your efforts, so if you are producing one kilogramme, produce two, if you are producing two kilogrammes, get four,â€ says Dr Kimemia.
These efforts include providing farmers with more training and encouraging them to name their trees so that they can become more conscious of their production levels.
Farmers outside the traditional coffee growing regions are also joining the fray. Coffee plantations are springing up in western Kenya, in the Rift Valley highlands, and in eastern Kenya.
Kenya could also diversify the type of coffee grown in the country. Currently, growers exclusively produce Arabica, considered the superior species of coffee. But CBKâ€™s managing director believes Kenyaâ€™s ideal growing conditions could also produce some high quality Robusta.
â€œI would like to see us going back to Robusta in the lake region because it gives us an alternative product and the possibility to set up a Kenyan coffee plant for instant coffee, as opposed to currently, when we are importing,â€ Ms Wanjira says.
Finding ways of increasing value-addition in Kenya could also boost production levels and pull youths back to coffee farming, and Ms Wanjira knows it.
â€œI think opportunities lie in value-addition because in growing areas we could encourage youths to get involved in value-addition activities. If they work at the grassroots, then it could stimulate production.â€
Despite the fluctuations in world coffee prices in recent years, overall demand for coffee is increasing. Perhaps more importantly for Kenyan growers, the world increasingly wants what they are already producing: high quality coffee. That demand is not only growing, it is also becoming more geographically diverse, further insulating farmers from the impact of economic crises.
By producing an increasingly desired commodity, farmers are likely to get the help they need to ensure that they have the inputs required to raise production levels.
â€œPeople right now around the globe are concerned about access to supply and theyâ€™re willing to invest in supply chains to make sure they get access to supply, and part of that investing is making sure that supply is available long-term,â€ says Mr Jordan.
With all the stars aligning for the Kenyan coffee industry, Dr Kimemia believes that producers will be left with the simple task of getting on with their work.
â€œAs Kenyan farmers, let us produce high quality coffee. The market is demanding it and we have what it takes to produce it. If we do that, the Kenyan farmer will be a very rich farmer.â€