Kenya - Struggling Towards Sustainability

Those of you who have read my book, Javatrekker, will remember how I got clobbered in Kenya trying to create fair and transparent trade a few years ago. There was so much corruption and so little information or options for the farmers that it looked like fair trade and organics would never take root there. Yet the coffee farmers of Kenya are a tenacious bunch. In spite of a year-long drought, election violence and market disruptions, they have continued to organize and seek help towards bringing more money and resources to their families. They haven't quit, so how could I?

I arrived in Embu with John Njoroge, the head of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, whom we had funded last year to come to the USA and receive certification as an international organic inspector. Building organic capacity in Kenya is a key part of our strategy, so that farmers won't have to rely on European and American inspectors to create and monitor their systems (very expensive and pretty darn colonial!). The year-long drought in the area meant that every step raised a cloud of dust, and the crops were withered and sickly.

I was greeted by the head of the Rianjagi Cooperative, Albert Mwaniki, who told me that he never forgot that I had said "if trade was not fair, then it was immoral", and he was eager to continue the quest for fairness for the farmers. We immediately began laying out the program for Rianjagi to become the first organic certified coffee cooperative in Kenya, a three-year process that would demand a lot of work on the farmers' part. We needed to set up an Internal Control System to document and monitor farm practices, set up training programs in water and soil conservation, build demonstration plots for natural pesticides and new practices, file with an international body for recognition and more.

KIOF, Dean's Beans and Rianjagi would sign a Memorandum of Agreement on who would be responsible for what, and most significantly, who would pay for all of this (guess who?). Just beyond the door of the coop office, women and men sang softly while they turned the coffee beans on their raised drying beds, bringing the moisture down to the required 12 percent before hulling, grading and bagging the beans for export. We worked late into the night designing the program, celebrating with a great dinner of everything grown on the farm of Molly Rwamba, the Vice Chair of Rianjagi and a dedicated organic farmer.

We also talked about the big change in Kenya. Before, farmers were forced to sell their coffee to the big processor, KPCU, which was theoretically owned by the coops, but was controlled by the governments. At last the law had been changed to allow the farmers to find their own buyers and market their coffee directly. This was known as the "second window". They thanked me for the small role I played in that change, as my whistle blowing on corruption inside KPCU pushed the changes along, they said. Well, I don't know about that, but at least one minister and many KPCU board members were dismissed as a result. Some satisfaction for the incredible rip-off we experienced trying to buy Rianjagi coffee before. We also talked about fair trade coming to Kenya. There were now three registered fair trade coops, although no certified organic ones. Were the fair trade coops making better money? Nobody knew, and there are still enough Byzantine regulations and channels of commerce outside of the farmers' control that I don't think anyone will know for a while.

The next day we celebrated the inauguration of a new computer system that would allow complete transparency and accountability for the farmers. They could go on the computer and see exactly what they brought in, what it sold for, how much was added to their accounts and who the buyers were. This was funded by Solidaridad, a Netherlands NGO along with Utz Kapeh, a self-certifying system for large European coffee importers. The claim to fame of the Utz systems is transparency, but it doesn't guarantee the farmers any more money. One of the board members commented sardonically that it was a good system, but they can't eat computer paper. The new Minister for Cooperative Development was there (the old one got canned after my debacle, although he is now the head of exports! It seems politicians know a lot about sustainability.) I gave a short speech about how impressed I was with the changes since my last visit, and how much more we had to go to insure fair treatment for Kenyan coffee farmers.

Later in the week was the launch of a new NGO, Fair Trade Organization of Kenya (FTOK). Forty farmers representing ten thousand farm families came together for the celebration and a full-day workshop on fair trade and organic, presented by John and I, along with FTOK foundedr Sophie Mukua and President Samwel Owigo. There were also representatives of Thika Mills (mills are traditionally the last bad guy in the farmers rip-off equation), which is now certified to process fair trade coffees (hmm, we'll see), and Robert Thuo of the African Wildlife Foundation, which is saving elephants and helping farmers with a grant from USAID and Starbucks (it's great work, but I had to ask, wouldn't it be better if Starbucks simply paid the farmers more for their coffee? Then they could put up their own fences and feed their families directly - what a concept!)

The farmer coops in attendance introduced themselves, and talked about the low price of coffee they receive and the terrible effects of the drought. They talked about how difficult it was to find direct buyers; even though they were allowed to do so by law, they didn't know how. John gave a wonderfully detailed description of the organic farming system. Most the these farmers were raised on government information that was hopelessly out of date and more appropriate for large plantations, not small holdings of two acres or so. We talked about interplanting and what crops farmers used in different countries to fix nitrogen into the soil, create soil stability and have more food for their families and local markets. We described natural pesticides and took a break for me to plant a muthega tree at the coop of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Matthai. The tree is used as a natural pesticide and it made a big impression on the farmers.

I spent about two hours describing why they don't get decent money for their crop, how prices are determined in New York, not in the field, and how to protect themselves from thieves coming into the "second window". We had to change shillings into dollars, pounds into kilograms and coffee cherries into green beans (about seven to one in Kenya), which made for a head pounding, exciting translation of information for farmers who had never had access to this before. After several intense hours of questioning, we called it quits, applauding each other heartily. Elias Matenge, head of the Thiriku Cooperative came up to me and patted my shoulder forcefully. "This has been revolutionary!" he beamed. "This was the best workshop I have ever attended!" shouted Nelson Mwaniki from Rianjagi. We all walked outside the meeting hall in a good mood. Then the most unbelievable thing happened.

It started to rain.

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