Kenya enjoys some of the best coffee growing conditions in the world. The central highlands are at the perfect altitude for growing coffee, and the equatorial climate is ideal too. There are 600,000 smallholders, who work together in hundreds of co-operatives, growing coffee in the highlands, as well as in the foothills of the Aberdare mountains.
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Kenya specialises in growing Arabica coffee. The farmers are committed to quality, and this shows in how the coffee exchange is run, as well as in the processing methods they use, and the high storage standards that licensees are required to adhere to.
The History of Kenyan Coffee
The coffee industry is relatively immature in Kenya compared to many other parts of the world. In fact, coffee was not introduced to the country until just over 100 years ago. The British brought coffee to the region from Ethiopia, and since then agriculture has become an important part of the country’s economy. In fact, coffee and tea are the country’s main exports, and about 75% of the population are employed in agriculture.
Most co-operatives process their own coffee, but as the industry grows there are some specialist mills and roasters starting businesses in the country. These mills buy up coffee and separate it based on quality and character, and then combine it to produce high quality blends.
The Coffee Industry in Kenya
Arabica is the only coffee that is cultivated in Kenya today. Up until the 1950s, Bourbon was the country’s main crop, but the Bourbon varieties were placed with SL 28 and SL 34 – two hybrids from Scott Laboratories. These Bourbon hybrids have a big body and a distinctive blackcurrant and wine flavour which is something that Ethiopian coffees are now widely known for.
The country’s equatorial location means that it can produce two harvests per year, and these harvests are processed by washing and sun-drying on African beds.
The Kenyan government has a carefully structured coffee industry. Since the 1930s they have run a weekly open auction for coffee. This system is transparent and favours quality harvests. High quality lots will be given the best prices. These auctions, which are held at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, are respected worldwide, and formed the core inspiration for the international Cup of Excellence system.
To prepare for the auction, samples from each lot will be sent to the members of the exchange. The buyers have the opportunity to test those samples and then inform the exporter about which lots they want to bid on. It is possible for farmers to sell directly to exporters if they wish, and some bigger farmers prefer to do it this way, since it allows them to negotiate better prices. However, smaller sellers often benefit from the increased discoverability of the auction system, since it gives them the opportunity to get their products seen by a huge network of buyers. For those who are looking for high quality blended coffee, rather than speciality single-origin blends, the auction system ensures quality and consistency from batch to batch.
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