Our sourcing strategy
We work in Kenya because the coffees can be world class. A great Kenyan coffee can compete with any of the most expensive and sought-after coffees in the specialty market. The combination of terroir, varieties and post-harvest processing makes them truly exceptional!
Our buying strategy in Kenya is to find these extraordinary coffees that perform extremely well on the cupping table. The coffees we buy are from the Farmer Cooperative Societies (FCS) who own one or sometimes several factories (washing stations).
Our primary focus is building a relationship with the FCS, buying from the same producers year after year. But of course, when a truly exceptional coffee stands out on the table, we may purchase from a producer or washing station whom we never worked with before.
The cup profiles
We see a broader range of interesting flavour profiles now than before, and there is development in lesser-known growing areas targeting higher qualities. There are the well-known flavours of blackberry, black currant, grapes and intense florals. Plus you can also find a lot of red berries, plums, stone fruit, hoppy florals, and citrus fruits. You may even find attributes of more fermented and process-driven profiles from washed coffees going through extended fermentation.
In general our coffees are from smallholder farmers that deliver coffees to factories (washing stations) under different FSC management in Central Kenya. We try to buy as much as we can from the same factories annually. That said, we are generally open to buy and establish relationships with any type of producers, whether they are single farmers on a small or large scale, who are producing the good stuff in any coffee growing region.
The last few years we have shifted from being very heavy on coffees from Nyeri county to buy more from Kirinyaga county. It’s simply because we have found more coffees in Kirinyaga at the higher quality levels than in Nyeri lately. But we are also buying across other counties, like Embu, Muranga Kiambu etc.
A FCS can have one or several factories (washing stations) that process the coffee. These factories will purchase cherries from the surrounding smallholders, or individual producers who own small-scale farms (about a few hundred trees). After they are purchased the cherries are mixed together towards one daily lot – typically made up of hundreds of different small scale farmers cherries. These factories, even the most well known ones, will have a relatively wide quality range.
So, even for more average coffees in Kenya the price points are high. This means that to get value for money you have to be specific in what you’re looking for and selectively cup through their outturns to find the best performing coffees every year. You have to be there to cup several times throughout the season, as the parchment deliveries are coming in over a longer period of time.
We have a portfolio of returning producers and factories that we have worked with over many years. And we know they are capable of producing great coffees and our goal is always to maintain these relationships, and ensure the coffees we buy are fully traceable. That’s normally not an issue in Kenya. Whether we buy it directly from the Cooperatives/Farms or through the auction, you can determine where it’s coming from.
However it remains vital to work with trustworthy suppliers so we know the premiums we pay for the coffee are going back to the producers. Many of the cooperatives place their pride and efforts in delivering good returns to the farmers. It’s also a way to attract the framers to deliver their coffees in the future.
The supply chain
As in the other east African countries, our coffees are grown by smallholder farmers. In the case of Kenya, they belong to a Farmer Cooperative Society (FCS), an organisation that manages the processing, and shares profits with the farmer members.
A FCS can have up to ten or more communal factories (washing stations) under their umbrella. Whenever they have a consignment ready, they deliver the parchment to the mill, that is usually owned by a marketing agent. This could typically be 200 bags of parchment, equivalent to about 130 bags of exportable green. The producer is still the owner of the coffee, the miller/marketing agent will charge a fixed fee for the milling, and a margin based on percentages from the sales. The coffee is sold to an exporter, who will manage the final grading/export prep and also add their margin and fees for their services on grading, bagging, finance and logistics to port etc.
There are two ways to buy coffee in Kenya.
1. Auction lots: Exporters buy coffee through an auction.
2. The second window: The FCS maintains ownership of the coffee which is offered to exporters via the marketing agent. When the exporter finds a buyer (an importer) the importer can negotiate directly with the FCS to purchase the coffee. The exporter facilitates the final grading, bagging and logistics. They pay the marketing agent who pays the FCS.
Kenya lies at longitude 34 – 42 degrees and latitudes 5 degrees and covers an area of 580 thousand square kilometers. There are about 43 million inhabitants. The two main coffee growing areas are in the surroundings of Mt. Kenya in Central Kenya as well the west all the way towards Mt. Elgon at the border of Uganda.
Kenya can produce up to 65,000 tons of green coffee and varies from year to year. The last few years it’s been around 45,000 tons. Kenya mainly produces fully washed coffees, and is considered by many as the world’s number one quality producer. There are more than 700 thousand coffee farmers (smallholders) representing about 55% of the production. The rest are mostly Estates. There are about 3000 small estates with less than 20 hectares, 300 larger ones and about 1,100 cooperative wet mills. Coffee exports counts for about 10% of Kenya’s income.
British colonists brought coffee to Nairobi in 1897 and coffee was well cultivated in the next ten years. Around 1910 the colonists living outside Nairobi started to plant trees in areas like Kiambu and Thika. By 1920 coffee became Kenya’s main export crop. During the 1930s the coffee industry went through major changes as it went from being a colonial experiment to a major industry. They started to implement different marketing strategies and cooperative systems. Some of the planters started the Thika planters Cooperative Union that later became the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union. The KPCU became dominant voice of the Kenyan coffee planters and they played a major role in the Kenya coffee sector as marketing agents and dry millers, but went out of business a couple of years ago.
In 1932 the Coffee board of Kenya was established. They established the coffee auction in 1934. In the late 1940s they established a nationwide grading system and introduced the mechanical huller to remove the parchment.
In 1934 the colonial government allowed indigenous people to plant coffees under strict regulations, but it didn’t work well. From 1946 they encouraged Kenyans to start planting cash crops. After 1950 the smallholder sector picked up and soon it dominated the KPCU. They started to build wetmills from the 1960s.
In 1978 the smallholder sector surpassed the large estates in terms of production, and still accounts for more than 50% of the total production.
Coffee plants were first brought into Tanzania by the French missionaries from Bourbon Island. At the same time Scottish missionaries were active in Kenya and were experimenting with Mocha seedlings from Ethiopia. Together the two groups introduced the two strains Mocha and Bourbon. It supposedly hybridized in the Kilimanjaro area into a new varietal known as French Mission.
They started early in Kenya to experiment with varietals. Around 1910 they experimented with the Tanzanian (Tanganyika) varietals and mixed them with varietals from Mysore in India. This hybrid is now known as Kent.
In the 1920s they used the French Mission as a base to create something called “Kenyas Selected.”
In 1934 they started to develop new varieties in the Scot Laboratories. They discovered a variety in the Mondul area in Tanzania that had good resistance against drought and pests. They also gathered trees of the original French Mission and other varietals that seemed to perform well. About 42 different trees of the French Mission and different Mocha varieties were selected in the 1930s based on their yield, quality and resistance to pests, drought and diseases.
The new varietals from the Scot Laboratories was prefixed as SL. They started with SL1 created from the “Kenya Selected” and developed a lot of different SL’s continued with SL2 , 3, 4 and so on, all created from different varietals based on French Mission, Bourbon and Mocha (Typica). Finally they ended up with the SL 28 and SL 34 that are still widely used.
SL 28 was selected from a single tree from a Tanzanian drought resistance variety, and have some Ethiopian influence as well as traits from a tree from Sudan’s Boma plateau. It has a broad copper tip leaf, bold beans, but are pretty low yielding. It’s known for delicate and complex flavor attributes.
SL 34 came from a single selection of French Mission at an Estate in Nairobi. It’s similar to the old “Kenya Selected” in appearance. It has been highly appreciated for its high yield and shows good resistance to droughts.
K7, another well-known variety was also selected from the French Mission, and are known for great immunity towards diseases. Still, not as much appreciated for cup quality as the SL’s.
Ruiru 11 was created in the 1980’s. The goal was to create a high yield plant resistant to leaf rust and CBD (coffee berry disease). They mixed “Hibrido de Timor” (a Robusta/Arabica hybrid) with “Rume Sudan” from the Boma plateau as well as with SL 28 and SL 34 for improved cup quality.
Blue Mountain was brought in from Jamaica and planted in western Kenya around 1913. It hasn’t been too successful in Kenya, but you can still find it in the Western parts. Batian is a new high yielding disease resistant variety that was released by the Coffee Research Foundation in Kenya in 2010. It’s supposed to improve cup qualities compared to Ruiru 11, and should be more equal to the SL 28. It’s back crossed from SL 28 and SL 34 and include SL4, N39, N30, Hibrido de Timor, Rume Sudan, and K7.
One of the largest challenges the coffee plant faces is the fungus that causes CBD or “Coffee Berry Disease.”. The fungus lives in the bark of the coffee tree and produces spores which attack the coffee cherries. The coffee cherries become dark, almost black in color and if it spreads at a farm or estate it can be devastating. It can be treated with copper formulations or organic fungicides. Still, this is too expensive for most farmers.
Another other challenge is leaf rust. It creates red/brown spots on the leaves. Coffee leaf rust is spread by wind and rain from spores from lesions on the underside of the plant. It can also be treated with expensive copper-based fungicides.
Farming and Production
The coffee sector is divided into smallholder cooperative societies, small estates with less than 20 hectares, and large estates. Cooperative societies and their wet mills represent more than 50% of the Kenyan coffee production. In our opinion, you can find coffees from some of these producers greater than almost anything else in the world.
The societies are the umbrella organization for one or several wetmills. Typically you have the Tekangu society that represents the wetmills Tegu, Karogoto and Ngunguru. The wet mills in Kenya are called Factories, e.g. Karogoto Factory. The Tekangu society will monitor the financing and will be the seller of the coffee from the factories. Still the individual wet mills will be responsible for production, management and overhead cost. The farmers can choose where they want to deliver their cherries, and if a wet mill does well, and is able to give a good second payment to the farmers they will attract more cherry suppliers.
A typical wet mill can have about 1000 farmers delivering cherries. They give a small advance payment at delivery. The better and well-managed wet mills are able to give more than 85% of the sales price back to the farmers. That’s after cost of milling and marketing is deducted. Most wet mills use traditional disc pulpers before dry fermentation, washing in channels, soaking in clean water, drying at raised tables and conditioning in bins at the warehouse.
Small Estates are located all over but are more represented in certain areas (for instance, they are more common in Kirinyaga than Nyeri). They can have amazing coffees, but as they are smaller in terms of production they often blend coffees randomly according to what they have to make a full consignment. This can in some cases be hit and miss. They normally process their coffees with small and modified pulpers of various quality. Normally they follow the same steps with dry fermentation, soaking and drying, but it can be more random according to their capacity when the cherries comes in.
The larger estates are mainly located in the outskirts of Nairobi. They do dense planting, high maintenance plant treatment and irrigation. They are able to produce up to 1,5 kg of greens pr tree, about three times of what smallholders produce on the average. Many of them outsource the management to professional providers of management services. The coffees are pulped at traditional disc pulpers, dry fermented, washed and soaked, and dried on raised tables before conditioned in bins constructed by wood and wire mesh.
You can find good coffees among the products from the Estates, but in general they are in our opinion missing the flavor intensity and complexity you can find in other Kenyans.
Processing and drying
We will use the smallholder and cooperative structure to describe the process, though except from picking and cherry delivery, the process is more or less similar for most producers no matter if it is a cooperative or a large estate.
Is done at the wet mills or at collection centers. When the farmers arrive at the place for delivery they would normally have to empty their bags on the floor (on a cover) to sort out unripe, overripe and CBD infected cherries. A supervisor inspects the cherries before they are weighed and the farmers get a small up front payment for the delivery. The delivery from every farmer is registered and they get a receipt for the amount. This will be the base for their right to payment after the coffee is sold. Some farmers are organized in groups or associations to be able to cooperate on investments for soil inputs and necessary equipment for farming.
After the coffees are weighed they go into the main cherry hopper above the pulper. Some wet mills have a separate hopper for the low grades such as under and over ripes. When they start the pulper the cherries go by gravity into the machine. They normally use disc pulpers such as old three disc Agaarde or similar brands. As long as you change the discs from time to time they can work perfectly well. It’s also important to adjust the pulper to remove the pulp (fruit) properly without damaging the parchment. The parchment flows from the discs with water allowing the parchment to be separated by density. The densest beans will sink and are pumped straight through a channel to the fermentation tank as P1 (parchment 1), the semi dense will go to a separate fermentation tank as P2. The floaters, P3, are considered as low grades and will normally go straight to the drying tables.
After pulping, the coffees are dry fermented (water is drained off) in painted concrete tanks. Normally they are fermented for 18-24 hours. Many factories do intermediate washing every 6 – 8 hours, meaning they add water, stir up the parchment and drain it again.
Washing and soaking
When fermentation is completed and the mucilage is dissolved the parchment gets washed in washing channels and graded again by density. The lighter beans will float off and the remaining dense parchment will normally be soaked in clean water up to 24 hours.
Drying and conditioning
After soaking, the coffees are skin dried at hessian mesh mats for skin drying up to one day. This is to quickly get off the moisture at the surface of the parchment. Typically after a day the coffees are moved to the traditional drying tables. The coffee is then normally dried on a surface of jute clothing or shade net on top of the wire mesh. The parchment is constantly moved as they sort out defected parchment and beans. The coffee has to be covered with plastic during the hottest periods of the day, normally between 12pm and 2pm as well as during the night. The drying time varies between 12 and 20 days depending on weather and rainfall. The moisture target is 11-12%.
They also have a tradition of intermediate conditioning. Depending on the capacity on the drying tables and the producer’s philosophy, some of them take the parchment into the conditioning bins at what they call the black stage, when the coffees are stabilized at around 16%. They can be conditioned for some weeks before they are placed on the drying tables again to finish of the drying.
Dry milling and marketing
Even if you can buy coffees directly from the producers these days, bypassing the auction, the system is still based on the same structure as before.
A producer normally has an agreement with a marketing agent and a dry mill.
Whenever he has a consignment ready he delivers the parchment to the mill. This could typically be 200 bags of parchment, equivalent to about 130 bags of exportable greens. The producer is still the owner of the coffee, the miller will charge a fixed fee for the milling and the marketing agent will have a margin based on percentages from the sales.
The coffee will be milled and graded in to bean size and different qualities. The mill and marketing agent normally cooperate and the coffee will then often be cupped, and presented in the auction catalogue by the marketing agent. At this point it can also be marketed and sold directly.
The dry mills in Kenya works very well and are highly professional and efficient. The coffees goes through their standard grading systems:
- E (Elephant beans) = screen 19 and up
- AA = 17/18
- AB =16/17
- PB = Peaberries
The rest is lower grades such as C = below14, TT and T is the low-density beans over and under screen 14.
In the mill everything is kept separate for the auction, and it’s a great opportunity to cup through the different grades from the same outturns and consignments. At this point we are able to do extensive cupping at the mill to be able to pick out our coffees before they enter the auction catalogue.
At a glance:
Harvesting season: October – January
Arrival times: March – May
Quantities: Varies from 5 – 50 bag lots. Average 20 bag lots
Packaging: 30 kg vacuum boxes and 60 kg grain pro bags
Price levels: 12,00 – 18,00 USD/kg
Cultivars: Mainly SL 28, SL 34, K7
Processes: Fully washed and sun-dried on African beds
Flavour profiles: Blackberry, black currant, plums, stone fruit, florals and citrus fruits
Usage: Widely used for filters, more seldom as espresso
Shelf life: Normally holds up well for a year. We can never guarantee more than 6 months after arrival for any coffees
Kenya blog posts
In April 2022, Nordic Approach organized a blind cupping for over 45 participants who shared their thoughts with us on 12 coffees of different varieties: SL Varieties, Ruiru 11 and Batian. This was part of a research that our Kenyan partners C. Dorman Ltd. have been conducting for over 6 […]
Kenya is considered by many as the world’s number one quality producer, and over the years we have found some top-notch coffees we are proud to offer. Coffee exports make up around 10% of Kenya’s income, and it can produce as much as 65,000 tons of green coffee each year. […]
It’s an exciting time of year — so many origins are in harvest, and so much great coffee is coming our way! What can we expect from Ethiopia, Kenya, Honduras, Colombia and Uganda this year? Our buyers give us an update. Ethiopia The harvest this year was earlier with higher […]