All for a cup of coffee

Michael Onsando
21 May ,2019

‘ This is because the decision making process is not guided by research or even stable projections, rather they are made to serve the egos and needs of the people who hold public resource either creating a conduit for siphoning or to fulfil an impossible promise so no one “looks stupid.”’

Considering the Public in Policy

The problem with continually writing about systemic problems is you get to see the same problem unravel itself in many different ways. You notice pervasive errors in thinking and how those errors permeate. Eventually you begin to question whether there is logic to these errors. 

On that front, perhaps one of the biggest failings of the jubilee government has been great sounding Africanisms. And by Africanisms I mean falling back on “decolonize” ideas that sound great without any real grounding in ability and possibility. One such concept was laptops for schools – it would be great if every student had a tablet but how, which, why, when and so forth were left to the gods. And the gods had other things to do.

Another such project, it seems is the Crop Ammendment Bill 2019, sponsored by Gatundu MP Moses Kuria. The bill proposes that all coffee grown in Kenya undergo processing, production and packaging locally. According to a source at the Business Daily:

‘ “Buyers are refusing to sign orders for clean (American green) coffee as they do not know what will happen in the future, with fears that they are likely to lose out on their orders,” said an official at NCE who sought anonymity so as to speak freely. ‘

Alarm over barring raw coffee export

Here’s the thing about Kenyan Coffee – it’s expensive. The Arabica that is predominant here is very pure(not sure pure is the coffee term, but sources spoken to within the industry spoke to a high grade level) which means that, in most markets it is blended with other coffees to create whatever then goes into the Starbucks cups.

Anyway, expensive is good yes? More money! Why give the money to others when we can make it directly? Buy Kenya sell Kenya – and other great sounding Africanisms.

Well, in 2016, Nyeri based Gikanda Coffee pursued these Africanisms and bought 30 bags of clean coffee to be processed and packaged for sale locally. A 50KG bag cost the cooperative KES 18,000 making the total investment worth about half a million shillings (before processing, packaging or marketing). As of August 2018 500KG (of 1.5 tonnes) had expired in their stores.

What happened? Take this from the Nation:

“According to the society’s chairman John Ngure, the lack of a market and strategies to earn from their produce led to the expiry of the coffee that has been stashed in 10 cartons in their stores.

“We also did not have a marketing strategy that would promote the consumption of our coffee,” he said, adding that the society suffered a loss of more than KES700,000.”

Don’t get me wrong. There is definitely a need to “seize the means of production” in a Marxist way and bring the power closer to the labour to ensure the farmers get more value for their crops. That being said the words of the chairman of this society continue to ring true. To go half cocked into a battle will always get us the same results. Had no one told the Gikanda coffee experts that it takes muscle to break into a market? That consumers are buying brands they trust and a new brand needs strong run time to gain the foothold it needs to hold steady?

Following this failure what is the driving force behind bwana Kuria’s ideas? Well the problem he is responding to is real. With six factories already closed down to “reduce operational costs,” farmers threatening to sell raw materials straight to a dutch company and the steady decline of coffee production over the last 20 years there is a need to rehabilitate the coffee industry. And so the pressure behind the bill makes sense.

We need to do something.

But this doesn’t mean just do anything. As the Gikanda coffee society learned, market penetration and brand building takes time and capital. What’s more because the local coffee needs to be blended to create the blends that other markets are used to local production would also involve importation of different coffee to process – do we have the capacity? Do we have a go to market plan? Do we know where the coffee will be sold and for how much? Or are we spewing and pursuing great sounding Africanisms without doing the legwork necessary, leaving our farmers even more vulnerable in the name of progress?

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