The coffee story in Kenya begins in 1895 at the French Mission in Bura, Taita Hills.
Different people have been credited for it: Either Rev. Father Etienne of Zanzibar; John Paterson of the Scotch Mission; or Brother Solanus Zipper of Morogoro.
Whoever introduced coffee plants at Bura, where the first Catholic Church in Kenya stood, unwittingly planted the seeds of a multi-billion industry.
But some 120 years later – the management of the industry is in shambles, with small scale farmers feeling the pinch and as battles to control it rages on.
From Bura, the coffee seedling found their way to Kibwezi where it was grown under irrigation by the Scottish clerics who had established “soul-winning” mission there before they moved to Kikuyu – together with their coffee.
It is from these plants that Dr Boedeker and Mr James McQueen collected some coffee beans which they planted at Harvey Estate in Fort Smith, near Kabete, and it thrived beyond expectations. Another farm had been started at Nairobi’s St Austin’s Church and this became the main supplier of coffee seedlings together with St Augustine’s Mission nursery in Kikuyu.
It is these two stations that determined the coffee industry in Kenya as large farms were quickly opened around Nairobi and Kiambu.
In 1904 Lady Delamere, wife of pioneer settler Lord Delamere, opened the Kigwa River Estate near today’s Windsor Golf as one of the first big farms followed by Douglas Cooper’s Kirawa Farm in Kabete that was planted in 1905 with seeds from St Austin’s mission. However, the most extensive plantation by 1907 was the 160-acre Felix and Favre Coffee Estate in Ruaraka. With these, the first Kenya export of coffee was in 1909 of 8.5 tons worth 236 pounds.
Kenya’s first Blue Mountain seeds were imported from Jamaica around 1910 and planted in Allan Thomson’s farm in Karura.
Coffee was colonial Kenya farmers’ success story- apart from Karen Blixen’s classic failure near Ngong Hills- and this made the first honorary secretary of the Coffee Planters Association remark with pride: “It may be said with confidence that the coffee planters are, with hardly an exception, the only body of settlers who have not suffered bitter experiences during the term of their settlements.”
The plantations were before the outbreak of World War I able to export their produce directly to Europe and the pay was prompt.
The only single threat was the emergence of leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix) at Kathini Estate. While the entire plantation was gutted to save other fields, one farmer John Walter Lenon, the man who had Kenya’s finest coffee farm – Kiamara Coffee Estate – panicked and sold his farm. Kiamara is today owned by James Boro Karugu, a former Attorney General. But the leaf fungus was not as devastating as thought.
This disease had been noticed several years back and in 1904, Commissioner Sir Charles Ellliot, signed an ordinance that prohibited import of plants and seeds from India, Ceylon, Mauritius, Zanzibar and Tanganyika.
The only other problem that faced early farmers was that monkeys and jackals also fed on the ripe berries but by 1908, lack of labour became the main challenge on the coffee farms and white farmers started to lose patience. Governor Sir James Hayes-Sadler could not make up his mind on the labour question and coffee farmers nicknamed him “Flannel foot”. Even after asking the farmers to present their opinions during a March 23, 1908 meeting, the Governor failed to give directions and this led to a demonstration in State House (then Government House) led by Lord Delamere and A.A. Baillie, two unofficial members of Legislative Council.
When the news of the coffee demonstration reached Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for Colonies, he dismissed the march as “insulting and disorderly”. Both Delamere and Baillie were suspended from Legco and reinstated after six months. One of the early farmers Mr W.O. Tait complained openly how lack of labour had ruined some crops. Also there were problems of how best to pulp, ferment and wash. It was due to these labour problems that the coffee planters decided to form an association to address their problems – labour, quality of beans, marketing and diseases.
Marketing of coffee had turned into a nightmare to some planters who were forced to hawk around their samples in Nairobi. It was also more problematic to move the produce from the farms in Nyeri, Thika, and Makuyu. To support the new coffee farms emerging in Thika and Nyeri, Governor Sir Percy Girouard, who arrived in Kenya in 1909, proposed the building of a new railway line. But London, doubtful of the success of Africa railways, rejected the proposal. Sir Percy – an engineer too – then asked for permission to build a tramway to Thika. This was accepted and it was built by the Public Works Department to the same gauge as the mainline.
This was a triumph for coffee farmers and as a result a 2000 acre estate was opened in Thika by Charles Taylor in 1910.
Interestingly, these early planters hardly relied on the Department of Agriculture since the extension officers knew little about coffee and its pests.