Coffee Growing Areas in Kenya; a comprehensive overview

Coffee Growing Areas in Kenya; a comprehensive overview

Only a handful of significant coffee-growing regions in the world regularly come out on top, and Kenya is undoubtedly one of them.  Coffee experts rank the beans among the top five globally due to their full body and delicate, complex flavors. However, to achieve such excellence, Kenyan farmers have ideal growing conditions and a country invested in extensive research and commerce strategies going in their favor. With all the hype surrounding Kenyan coffee, though, you may not know the hard facts about how Kenyan coffee comes about. So, let's dive deeper into the Kenyan coffee sector.

A Short History

The origin of coffee is relatively close to Kenya. Yet, getting it here was a difficult task and full of bloodshed due to the colonial roots. Pastoralists and farmers inhabited the vast interior of modern-day Kenya before the mid-19th century when the country was unknown to the western world.

Missionaries keen to spread Christianity were the first to explore Kenya's interior. Their stories of large inland lakes and snow-capped mountains on the equator sparked several famous and well-documented expeditions. The British settlers followed around 1900 and quickly assumed control over the country's interior.

The completion of the Ugandan Railway in 1901 further accelerated the region's growth with the European settlers introducing plantation agriculture, including coffee, tea, sisal, wheat, and pyrethrum. By the time Kenya attained its independence in 1963 the Coffee Industry was a leading foreign exchange earner in its economy.

More recently, economic turmoil stemming from low global coffee prices, climate change, and population growth has resulted into lower output from Kenya’s coffee farmers. However, Kenya still exports 95% of all the coffee it produces — most of which comes from the country’s more than 600,000 small farms.

Arrival of Coffee in Kenya

Despite its proximity to the origin, coffee made a detour worldwide for 500 years before entering Kenya! It is thought that it first grew at the French Mission at Bura on the Taita Hills as far back as 1885. The missionaries had transported bourbon coffee seeds from Bourbon Island (now known as La Réunion island) to the shores of Kenya in the late 1800s.  However, documents show that John Paterson introduced the plant to Kenya on behalf of the Scottish Mission in 1893.

The coffee was first introduced to the Kiambu-Kikuyu district in 1896, a fertile area in Kenya. By 1912, the site had plantations spanning several hundred acres, predominately growing the Bourbon and Kent varieties. In addition, coffee was grown at Kibwezi, under irrigation in 1900, and at Kikuyu near Nairobi in 1904. In the 1930s, following the Devonshire White Paper Report of 1923, the Colonial Government allowed controlled planting of coffee outside the European settled areas in Kisii and Meru in particular.

While credit for the introduction of coffee rests with the Missions, it was the settlers who accelerated its importance to the economy. They were actively encouraged to grow crops for export to help repay the exorbitant costs of building the railway.

To protect their interest, the wealthy Europeans banned the locals from growing coffee. They also introduced hut tax and gave them less and less money for their labor, forcing the Kikuyus to flee their land. This legal slavery of the local population continued into the century until the Mau Mau Uprising forced the British to surrender control of the coffee in 1960. This period also coincided with the regeneration of the country and the construction of Kenya’s independent government, which enforced strict pricing on coffee farmers.

Until that time and beyond the actual control of coffee in Kenya would pass through several different regulatory bodies, including: 

  • CB (Coffee Board), 1933: This was the first solid regulatory body developed by the colonialists to monitor licensing and inspections to marketing and sales. 
  • CMB (Coffee Marketing Board), 1947: Primarily geared toward marketing the coffee Kenya produced. 
  • CBK (Coffee Board of Kenya), 1971: The role of CBK was solidified in 2001 with the Coffee Act. They’re in control of policies surrounding everything from licensing to production and sales of Kenyan coffee. 

 The native Kenyan farmers adopted the long-acquired expertise and knowledge after independence in 1963, resulting in today's high coffee quality standards, which coffee drinkers worldwide know so well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Kenya coffee is produced by smallholder farmers. In recent decades, the Kenyan government decreased its restrictions on coffee and gave farmers more freedom to set their prices and make decisions regarding their business.

Developing Kenyan Coffee Varieties

The British colonial government established the Scott Agricultural Laboratories in 1922 to 1944. Although the lab personnel trained Kenyan farmers and gave technical advice on farming coffee, developing the SL 28 and SL 34 coffee varieties remains the lab's most notable work. The SL stands for the Scotts Laboratories. The SL 28 grows well at high to medium altitudes where coffee leaf rust is not a significant problem, while the SL 34 does well at higher elevations with ample rainfall.   The colonial government also developed the Kent 7 cultivar (K7) but was selected from the French Mission Coffee at Legetet Estate in Muhoroni. It does well at lower elevation areas that are also vulnerable to coffee leaf rust. Thus, the SL28, SL34, and K7 comprise the traditional Kenyan commercial varieties from the French Mission lineage at Bura. Generally, coffee farms established before the 1930s are French Mission - a bourbon pedigree. Additionally, the Blue Mountain variety, is as old as the French Mission coffee, even though not widely grown or known in Kenya.

In 1964, the government founded the coffee Research Foundation (CRF) to take over the breeding from the Scotts Lab. However, in the late 1960s, severe outbreaks of Coffee Berry Diseases and Leaf Rust struck Kenya, and the center swiftly started developing resistant varieties from 1971. They introduced Ruiru 11, and Batian commercial varieties considered national pride as they came after the colonial government in Kenya. Both are resistant to coffee berry disease and coffee leaf rust, suited for all agroecological zones. The CRF was renamed Coffee Research Institute (CRI) in 2014.

Today, Kenya mainly grows Arabica coffee in five popular varieties: SL 28, SL 34, K7, Ruiru 11, and Batian. 

Coffee growing areas in Kenya

Most of Kenya's coffee grows from 1400 to 2000 meters above sea level, with temperatures ranging from 15 to 24 degrees Celsius, in deep and well-drained red volcanic soils. The average annual rainfall ranges from 900 – 1,200 mm. Thus, the primary growing regions are the high plateaus around Mount Kenya and smaller areas around Mount Elgon. They can be clustered as follows:

Central region

The central region produces about 60% of all the coffee in Kenya, with the main growing areas being Nyeri, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Murang'a, and Thika.  It is also the country's traditional coffee-growing area, where both small and large farms spread across the slopes of Mount Kenya (elevation 5199m) and the Aberdare Ranges (elevation 3720m). In general, the Central region has fertile volcanic soils, just the right amount of sunlight and rainfall that yield some of Kenya's best quality Arabica coffee. The area is also favorable for horticulture, tea, and dairy farming.

Kiambu was once called the 'Brazil' of Kenya because of its numerous large coffee estates. It neighbors Kenya's capital, Nairobi, to the East of the Rift Valley and lies on the foothills of Aberdare ridge. Kiambu has an altitude range of 1520 to 2200 meters above sea level and is endowed with red volcanic soil rich in organic matter. The annual average rainfall is 1098mm, falling in a bimodal pattern in two distinct wet seasons. Sadly, the owners are now converting most large coffee farms into real estate, mainly motivated by the sectors ailing economy and increasing pressure from urbanization.

Coffee farms in Kirinyaga lie on the slopes of the snowcapped Mount Kenya at an altitude range of about 1310 to 1900 meters above sea level. Rainfall averages about 1518 mm and occurs in two distinct seasons. Murang'a lies on the foothills of Aberdare Ridge and comprises Maragua, Murang'a, Mitubiri, and Makuyu growing areas. The altitude ranges from 1340 to 1950 meters above sea level and receives approximately 1305 mm average rainfall annually. On the other hand, parts of Nyeri lie on the Aberdare ridge's foothills or overlook the beautiful ice-peaked Mount Kenya. The altitude ranges from 1220 to 2200 meters above sea level, and the average annual rainfall is 953 mm, although this amount exceeds in the coffee-growing areas.

Coffees produced in Kiambu and Thika have well-rounded acidity with grapefruit tasting notes. In contrast, Kirinyaga and Nyeri coffees exhibit a sharp full body with citrus acidity, chocolate, and blackcurrant flavors.

Eastern Region

The Eastern coffee-growing region of Kenya consists of Machakos, Embu, Makueni, Tharaka Nithi, and Meru Central counties. They have agroecological zones ranging from arid and semi-arid to mountainous moorland areas, supporting various agricultural activities.   Coffee in Meru and Tharaka Nithi is grown on the Eastern highlands of Mount Kenya and around the Nyambene hills. However, coffee in Tharaka Nithi only grows in the Nithi area. Altitude ranges from 1280 to 1970 meters above sea level, and annual rainfall averages about 1287 mm falling in a bimodal pattern. Coffee in Embu county is grown in the eastern highlands of Mount Kenya at an altitude ranging between 1280 and 1900 meters above sea level. Soils in Embu, Meru Central, and Tharaka Nithi are deep red volcanic and rich in organic matter, yielding coffee with a great tasting profile.

In contrast, Machakos and Makueni are primarily arid and semi-arid; therefore, coffee cultivation is mainly in hilly areas such as Iveti, Kangundo, Machakos, Donyo Sabuk, and Mbooni areas. The altitude ranges between 1400 and 1830 meters above sea level with red volcanic soils. The annual average rainfall is about 685 mm although the coffee-growing areas receive higher amounts.

Machakos and Makueni are the ancestral home of the Akamba people, famous for wood carving and as long-distance traders since the 1850s! Established in 1887, ten years before Nairobi, Machakos was the first administrative center for the new British East Africa colony. Its name is adopted from Masaku, an Akamba chief/seer who welcomed the British in Kambaland in 1887.  However, they later moved the capital of Kenya to Nairobi in 1899 when Uganda Railway under construction bypassed Machakos. Nevertheless, Machakos remains the biggest town in the Kambaland, and coffee is a vital crop as a livelihood source for many families.

Rift valley region

The Great Rift Valley is another of Kenya's prized attractions. Stretching from Lebanon in the Middle East to Mozambique, Africa's 6,000-mile valley on the earth's crust, and much of it in Kenya, divides the country in two! Some of the world's beautiful lakes, mountains, and plains endow the Rift valley.

Local communities in the Rift valley region of Kenya are predominantly maize farmers and livestock keepers. However, they are gradually transitioning into coffee farming, with the youth and women taking the lead. Societies as Kapngetuny Farmers' Co-operative Society have embraced Women in coffee farming. Cooperatives have been helpful because they make production more solid and on a large scale.

The soils are young volcanic and fertile, although vegetation does not yet cover the lava in many places and is still visible. The temperatures are also mild and do not rise above 28 °C (82 °F).

Some of the promising zones are Kericho and Nandi to the west of the Rift Valley. Coffee mainly grows on the highlands in Nandi, Kericho, Bomet,  Transnzoia, and Kipkelion, with Ruiru 11 and Batian as the leading coffee varieties. These areas produce coffees with a medium acidity cup profile, a full body with fruity overtones, and a rich chocolate taste.

Trans-Nzoia, Keiyo and Marakwet are also promising coffee-growing areas west of the Rift Valley, including West Pokot, Uasin Gishu, Kitale, and Markwet grwowing areas. There is anticipated growth in production in this region driven by new plantings as farmers diversify their enterprises, where farms are turning to coffee as a substitute from maize and dairy enterprises.

Nakuru, Baringo, and Laikipia are other areas just south of the Equator; the coffees are high grown, with altitudes peaking at 2200 and lowest at 1830 meters above sea level.  Soils are diverse, ranging from volcanic grey loam to fertile red volcanic soils with about 937 mm annual rainfall on average.

Western region

Bungoma, Vihiga, and Kakamega counties are what make up the Western Region of Kenya. They lie on the foothills of Mount Elgon (elevation 4321 m abs). Altitude ranges from 1500 to 1950 m above sea level and rainfall of 1514 mm annually.  Most families in Bungoma rely on crop production and animal keeping as agriculture is the county's backbone. Main cash crops include sugarcane, coffee, cotton, palm oil, sunflower, and tobacco. Coffee is grown on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, yielding a cup profile of bright acidity with fruity overtones typical of high altitudes.

Vihiga County is one of the counties in Kenya with favorable ecological conditions for growing coffee, including acidic soils, sunlight, the right temperature, and rainfall. In contrast, Trans-Nzoia is Kenya's 'corn-belt,' and coffee is on small and medium-sized estates. Coffees produced here have full-bodied with sharp citrusy tasting notes.  

Nyanza region

Our second last place on the list producing coffee in Kenya is the Nyanza region located around Lake Victoria. The main growing areas are Kisii, Nyamira, Migori, and Homabay in Kisumu County. Kisii and Nyamira counties are densely populated, with average land sizes peaking at only 0.25 acres. Even so, the Kisii highlands comprise rich agricultural lands supporting coffee production, among other crops.  Altitude ranges from 1450 and 1800 meters above sea level, and soils are deep red volcanic soils rich in organic matter.  Rainfall is adequate and reliable, averaging about 2163 mm annually. The main coffee varieties in Kisii and Nyamira counties are the SL 28, SL 34, K7, and the Blue Mountain, which is not popular in other parts of the country.

Oyugis and Homabay are coffee-growing areas close to Lake Victoria with high potential, although production is still low.

Coffees from the Nyanza region have a cup profile of medium acidity and medium body, albeit smooth and creamy. They are sweet, nutty, and toasty with some fruity taste.

Coast Region

The final coffee-growing place is the Taita Hills in Taita Taveta county. This is also the first place where  coffee was planted in Kenya in 1893.

Why Kenya has areas that are good coffee producers

Kenya's location along the Equator provides a climate that is ideally suited for growing coffee. The Kenyan landscapes are dominated by Arabica type, accounting for 99 percent, while Robusta comprises the remaining 1 percent. The deep fertile volcanic soils and well-drained at high elevations are especially suited for the Arabica coffee typically produced from 1220 meters above sea level. These soils are also acidic, with a pH between 5.3 and 6.0, making them even more ideal for coffee. Additionally, annual average rainfall ranges between 1000mm and 2000 mm, is adequate and well distributed in two distinct wet seasons. Some prime areas are around the slopes and foothills of Mount Kenya, the Aberdare ranges, Mt Elgon, the Kisii Highlands, and parts of the Rift Valley.

Harvesting

The country's location on the equator results into a bimodal rainfall pattern allows for two harvests per year. Generally, the coffee plants flower in March and April and from September to October after the rains start. On the other hand, the Coffee cherry(fruit) usually ripens from May to July and October to December. The length and exact timings of the various coffee seasons may vary geographically or get influenced by global climatic changes.

Processing

Almost all Kenyan coffee is wet processed to ensure the best quality. In a wet processing method, the coffees are fully washed, then dried in the sun on raised drying screens/beds. They are otherwise naturally processed by drying under direct sunlight before milling and grading.

Kenyan Green Coffee beans and Grades

Kenyan green coffee beans are sorted and graded by bean size and color, shape, and density. The general assumption is that size is the most crucial determinant for quality, arguing that bigger beans hold more essential oils that enhance the taste and aromas. Thus, the largest and best Kenyan coffee beans are graded as Kenya AA, with a screen size over one-fourth inch in diameter. A bit smaller is the Kenyan AB grade, which some regard as a better bean than the AA. Most importantly, though, beans are graded by size to achieve even roast and rate.

Currently, eight coffee bean grades are used in Kenya:

  • Kenya E (Elephant Bean)
  • Kenya PB (Pea Berry)
  • Kenya AA (Screen 17/18)
  • Kenya AB
  • Kenya C
  • Kenya TT
  • Kenya T
  • Kenya MH/ML

The Elephant grade coffee is the largest of the beans.

Tasting Notes

Known for its consistently rich flavor and deep, wine-like acidity delightful aroma, Kenyan coffee beans have a distinctly bright taste with complex fruit and berry tones.

Buying

Currently, there are two coffee marketing systems in Kenya: the central auction system and the Direct Sale. The central market system is the oldest and has coffee auctions conducted every Tuesday throughout the year, where licensed coffee dealers buy the coffee through competitive bidding. The Nairobi Coffee Exchange is under the Kenya Coffee Producers and Traders Association (KCPTA).

The Direct Sale, commonly referred to as “Second Window” requires that a marketing Agent directly negotiates with a buyer outside the country. But, first, a sales contract is duly signed and registered with the Directorate, which then ratifies the agreement after carrying out an inspection and analyzing the coffee for quality and value as per the contract.

There are two categories of Marketing Agents: Commercial Marketing Agents who offer their services purely for commercial purposes and Grower Marketing Agents who are growers marketing their coffee.

 Conclusion

Kenyan coffee is fascinating and has a renowned reputation around the world! Its history is hard work, determination, and a love of the land and the crop. And although Kenya's coffee sector is not without its challenges, Kenya’s coffee farmers pride themselves on producing one of the world's five best coffees. Iburu Coffee is highly privileged to bring a taste of Kenya through coffee from smallholder farmers to your home. Besides, you also now know where your favorite coffee beans come from!


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Written by

Gakii Mugendi


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