Traditional coffee-growing regions: Counties located in the former Western, Central and Rift Valley provinces (the country is currently divided into counties and no longer into provinces)
Counties to try: Embu, Meru, Kitale (Trans-Nzoia) Nandi, Kericho, Kisii, Machakos, Nakuru, and the counties of the former Rift Valley province in general
Typical harvest: Peaks from April to June and from October to December
Altitude range: 1,400 m to 2,200 m above sea level
Main processing method: Fully washed
Exportable grades: E (Elephant, screen 21), AA (18/17), AB (16), PB (12), C (10)
Main varieties: SL 28, SL 34, K7, Ruiru 11, Batian, and Blue Mountain
Number of smallholders: Around 790,000
Number of coffee estates: Around 3,000
Average smallholder farm size: 250 coffee trees or about 0.2 hectares
Average estate size: From 2 to 20 hectares
Average yields: 300 kg to 400 kg/ha of clean coffee for smallholders and up to 1,600 kg/ha for estates (given the size of the plots a smallholder produces less than 2 x 60 kg bags on average)
Temperature range: 15℃ to 24℃
Soil: Volcanic, acidic, and well-drained due to the undulating topography
Rainfall: 1,000 to 2,000 mm per year, well-distributed
Kenya is the third African country to feature on Algrano’s marketplace, following Ethiopia
and Tanzania. Geographically, it sits on the East Coast of Africa between those very two countries. It all started when a former Algrano employee met Vava Angwenyi
, a local coffee entrepreneur, on a plane journey in pre-COVID years. In 2021, Vava uploaded her first offers, choosing to highlight overlooked producing counties such as Meru, Embu, Nandi and Machakos alongside the well-established Kericho and Nyeri.
Vava, who is both an exporter and a producer, wants to change the narrative
around Kenyan coffee, giving producers more ownership of their own stories. Showcasing counties that are neglected by buyers is one way of doing it - not to mention it's historically accurate as provinces such as Western and Rift Valley no longer exist.
According to Vava, producing counties that were a part of the former Eastern province are less known as a result of colonial trading practices. “There is a misconception about Kenyan coffee’s seasonality and when it should be shipped that comes from colonial times”, she says. “People think that if you are not buying in March you are getting an old crop but we harvest year-round with maybe a month’s break. This calendar was set by colonialists because they exported more from Central Kenya. Eastern Kenyan lots have always been bulked with Western and Centrals and by that time they were old.”
In fact, 32 of the country’s 47 counties produce coffee, showing how little we know about the country. Actors like Vava, the first native female coffee exporter in Kenya running a certified B-Corp, are trying to change that - but they are rare. The country’s production is also in decline
(more than 60% since the 80s) mainly due to price volatility, climate change and the cost of inputs. All this makes room for dairy, horticulture and real estate to occupy land which was previously used for coffee.
Two marketing systems and challenges to direct sales
Kenyan coffee is sold via two marketing systems: auctions operated since 1935
by the Nairobi Coffee Exchange every Tuesday, where marketing agents offers coffees from co-operative societies to the highest bidder, and directly to a foreign buyer or exporter with access to a buyer, a process known as the “second window” and available only since the 2007/08 crop year. As most farmers are part of societies and can’t process their own beans, one of many prerequisites to get a license to sell directly, over 90% of Kenyan coffee is sold through the auction. Vava favours working with producers that make direct sales but she also buys coffee on the Exchange.
“I’d say we have a 60-40 split. All exporters get weekly samples [sent from what is known as the Exchange's Central Sample Room] and we start talking to producers to find out the price they are happy with. A couple of times I made an offer and the producer withdrew the lot from the auction list”, Vava explains. “When we buy directly, we have to offer a better price than they would get at the auction by law. We develop grassroots relationships with farmers to tell their stories, invest in best farming practices and also to secure this investment.”
For Vava, one of the main problems for Kenya’s coffee sector is that “very few buyers want to try new things and get out of their comfort zone”. Kenya is dominated by large multinational companies, the same ones that trade in other African countries because buyers want convenience and the ability to cancel contracts without consequences. More is needed to strengthen the local supply chain. If direct sales represent a second window for Kenyan coffee, backing native businesses such as Vava’s is definitely the third one.