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Humans · Economy

The Kenyan coffee thefts

March 03rd, 2017
in:Humans, Economy
by:Thanh Hoang
located in:Kenya
tags:Arabica, coffee, Kenya, Othaya Coffee Farmers Co-operative Society

Kenya is reeling from an unprecedented wave of coffee thefts and murders, as the price of the commodity in international markets soars, with over 30,000 kilos having been reported as stolen since the year began.

The Kenyan coffee variety, Arabica, has always attracted high premiums in international markets due to its high quality, fruity notes and strong acidity. It is used in blending other varieties.

International investors and buyers have pitched up in the country with a view to securing raw berries. This has made the commodity a key source of income for thousands of Kenyan households and a key foreign exchange earner for the country. It is the third largest agricultural export earner with its production providing employment to over 600, 000 farmers, with 75 per cent of them being small scale who market their produce through cooperatives.

But competition for agriculture land from real estate and exploration of natural resources, coupled with a bureaucratic farm to market chain that includes middlemen and marketers has dumped farmers’ appetite to grow what traditionally was christened the green gold. Farmers have either sold their land or moved over to more lucrative crops.

The production decline beginning in 2015, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, is projected to persist well into this year. This, even as demand for the coffee continues to rise. Rogue middlemen and marketers who are servicing a pent-up demand from international markets even as supplies dwindle are resorting to unorthodox ways to satisfy the markets, key among them theft.

The prime growing areas of Kenya, among them the Central region, known for its high altitude and volcanic soils, have been hardest hit. The theft happens from farms, in factories and on transit. 

Industry players and security agents have identified two patterns in the string of thefts. That based on the style of execution, they are carried out by well-organized gangs and another indicating industrial fraud. One audit early this year following the theft of coffee beans worth $70,000 pointed to a racket consisting of factory management, millers and senior staff in that factory.

“In the string of attacks that we have recorded in the factories around this area, the thefts happen so fast and the thieves seems to know where exactly the berries are located and how to navigate their way through the stores. The style with which they also break the doors and pack the berries points to the work of professionals,” said Jeffrey Kinoti an Officer Commanding Police Station (OCS) in Nyeri County where coffee theft has become an almost daily affair.

The thefts have sometimes become bloody, with security guards hired to man the factories ending up either being tied up or killed. In the last few months up to 15 guards have been brutally murdered by the gangs. The cartels also steal coffee while it is being transported and manage to pass multiple police roadblocks in what players have questioned as suspect.

The thieves have equally become daring and moved beyond stealing from factories to farms. Bilha Moraa a coffee farmer in Kisii area of Western Kenya was shocked one morning when she went to pick the coffee berries from her five acre farm only to find them all harvested. “I have never experienced anything like it before. I stared in disbelief. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone would be so daring as to enter my farm and harvest my entire produce at night. These thefts have gone overboard now,” she lamented.

It is suspected that coffee thefts could rise in coming months as dealers grapple to meet more orders even as production plummets by up to 40 per cent.

And as the thefts continue unabated, international brands and exporters are expressing fears that if farmers are unable to protect their produce, they will eventually abandon coffee growing which will ultimately affect production.

Stakeholders now say the answer lies in direct sale of coffee. “With direct sale farmers manage to bypass so many market hiccups, bureaucracies and do not have to deal with many players across the value chain who want to have a share of the earnings which leaves farmers with nothing at the end of it all. Direct sales also guarantee farmers more earnings at specified timelines,” said Abel Wanjohi an official at the Coffee Directorate.

Othaya Coffee Farmers Co-operative Society is a classic example. Since it started milling, direct marketing and sale of its coffee about five years ago, it has managed to reduce losses from 30 to 17 per cent and is now paying farmers more than triple what they would have earned if they were selling on their own. Coffee theft has never been witnessed in the cooperative since they deal directly with the buyers. The cooperative sells to US, South Korea, Denmark and Norway. In China the coffee is sold through the Othaya Coffee brand.

Article written by:
Thanh Hoang
Author
Current Map: Our coverage
International investors and buyers of coffee made the commodity a key source of income for thousands of Kenyan households and a key foreign exchange earner for the country.
It is the third largest agricultural export earner with its production providing employment to over 600, 000 farmers, with 75 per cent of them being small scale who market their produce through cooperatives.
“In the string of attacks that we have recorded in the factories around this area, the thefts happen so fast and the thieves seems to know where exactly the berries are located and how to navigate their way through the stores."

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