With government help fair trade coffee can aid African farmers

Coffee is the second largest commodity in the world after oil. In 2006 coffee lovers purchased just over 700 million kilograms of coffee beans according to TransFair Canada but the world’s growing addiction to this stimulant is starving countless coffee farmers. That is unless it’s fairly traded. Fair Trade Certification ensures that coffee farmers are fairly paid for their beans have access to community development programs as well as meet a series of environmental standards to protect their health and that of the environment.

“Coffee growers in my country are struggling to survive” says Lawrence Njeru a third-generation coffee grower in Meru Kenya which borders Mount Kenya. “We are only getting 10 per cent of the value of coffee.” Njeru who completed an agriculture degree in the United States in 1990 says Kenya has no more than 10 fair trade co-operatives. “Certification costs are too expensive and we can’t afford to meet all of the standards” he says. “Also the large coffee companies’ view on fair trade is that their market share will be tiny.” Njeru explains that fair trade isn’t always profitable to farmers given that the fair trade co-operatives are producing more coffee than the companies are willing to purchase at a fair price.

Coffee was Kenya’s major export for 20 years but it has steadily dropped over the past decade and is now in third place with tea in the lead followed by horticultural produce. Agriculture is Kenya’s largest foreign exchange sector through exports with an estimated 75 per cent of the population working in this sector. Kenya produces about 2.5 per cent of the world’s coffee. Kenya’s struggle to keep coffee as its main export has resulted from a decline in world coffee prices and the structure of Kenya’s coffee auction system. Until a year ago coffee farmers had to sell their coffee through the auction in Nairobi where coffee producers sold their coffee to brokers representing world markets. “We now have direct coffee sales but it’s not really direct” says Njeru. “We still have to go through coffee marketing agents and exporters.”

Njeru has developed an umbrella organization that includes 30 co-operatives and 65 factories; he processes their coffee and sells it to German companies which are the biggest buyers of Kenyan coffee. “My goal is to bring buyers closer to producers but it’s still a big struggle” says Njeru.

It’s no surprise that Jeff Genung owner of Cochrane Coffee Traders hasn’t been able to purchase fair trade coffee from Kenya. “I’m able to buy fair trade from Ethiopia and sometimes Tanzania through my broker” says Genung. “We’d like to get fair trade and organic coffee from Kenya but it hasn’t been available to us.”

With Calgary’s growing awareness and interest in fair trade goods Cochrane Coffee Traders is providing its blends to several independent coffee shops in the city such as Weeds Café Urban Bean Kaffa Coffee House and several community-based shops.

“Buying fair trade is a way that local families and consumers can give back to families living in the developing world” says Genung. “It’s one of the few ways that everyday people can give directly to people living in severe poverty.”

However fair trade has hit a roadblock in Kenya. Canadian coffee traders wanting to purchase Kenyan coffee at a fair price for the farmer need to interact directly with farmers. Blake Hanacek founder of Agrocafe in B.C. did just that.

“I’ve travelled to coffee farms around the world and Kenya’s coffee is my favourite by far” says Hanacek who has developed a unique trading system with several coffee farms in Kenya through Agrodev an international non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on promoting development and innovation in Kenya’s agricultural sector.

“Kenya has now opened up a ‘second window’ that allows direct trade with co-operatives and farmers. But before we were forced to purchase our own coffee from ourselves through the government auction because you couldn’t sell coffee without taking it to the auction.” says Hanacek.

Currently most of Kenya’s coffee is sold as a generic blend of grades based on bean size (AA or AB the former being larger) completely ignoring its origin and type of bean. “Our goal is to push the names of the farmers that are going to succeed” says Hanacek. “We want consumers to develop a palate for Kenyan coffees just like for wines and ask for Kenyan coffee by name or region.”

But Kenya’s coffee production is in jeopardy. “Coffee farmers are looking for alternative crops” says Njeru. “[Produce] farmers get paid on a weekly basis so that is more interesting and viable.” Coffee farmers that sell their coffee through marketing agents have to wait over three months to get paid for their crop and as a consequence nearly every farmer has debts and uses part of his land to grow food for his family and other crops for exportation.

“Some very big actions are required before more land is dedicated to coffee crops and to make it profitable” says Njeru. “Our government and your government have to help us break the barrier to achieving direct market access. At this moment they just let companies deal with each other collect their taxes — and that’s it.”

This is the fourth in a five-part series. Next week: water and foreign aid.