A Conversation with a Kenyan Coffee Farmer

Mr. Obobo

Recently one of our readers, tweeted a quote from my Field Report in the February + March 2014 issue on the Café Imports Origin Trip to Kenya. She tweeted, “Drink our good coffee,’ Mr Obobo said. ‘Enjoy it. But make sure the producer is not forgotten.”

Visiting Mr. Obobo’s small farm in Nyeri was one of the most enlightening and challenging parts of that amazing trip, and the opportunity to talk with a farmer in that environment is one of the most rewarding experiences of visiting coffee origin. That’s not to say, however, that it was easy.

It can be tough as a comparatively rich American when confronted with the reality of coffee farming to have anything worth saying, but certainly hearing what farmers have to say it is invaluable, so I wanted to take this chance to expand on our visit to Mr. Obobo’s farm, and give voice to more of his concerns than could fit in the article.

Mr. Obobo was nothing if not gracious and welcoming, but he also did a good job of telling us what it really means to be a small coffee farmer and therefore dependent on forces outside of one’s control.

Mr. Obobo on his farm talks with us about his daily life working in coffee.

Mr. Obobo on his farm talks with us about his daily life working in coffee.

“[The] fluctuations of coffee prices,” he said, “are playing God with people’s lives.” The difference, he continued, between getting a good price for his coffee and getting a bad price determines whether or not his two daughters get to go to school.

“Something good will happen,” he said, “if the farmer gets good prices, but if you make good coffee and not get good prices, it’s not fair! The producers is not the consumer but should be the beneficiary [too]!”

We were standing on the steep slope of Mr. Obobo’s farm, but it was a tiny slice of land. He had some 250 trees, most of them planted by his father in 1958 when the Kenyan government liberalized the coffee industry and first allowed black farmers to plant coffee freely. He also served a trainer for his coop, teaching his fellow members about fertilization, pruning and care of their crops. The work has been an amazing success, in some cases tripling his yield. Before he began using best practices, he was averaging around 3kg of coffee per tree. Afterwards his yield shot up to 8-10kg per tree. And yet, in the meantime, coffee prices had fallen, so his net pay was not keeping up with his increased production.

He said it felt like he was playing a rigged game. For the consumer, if the coffee price goes up, he said, the consumer gets better coffees. If the price goes down, the consumer pays less for coffees. “For the farmer,” he said, “it’s not always a win/win. Sometimes the farmer loses. We have better training and education, but no difference in the price. I’m straining to get a lot of kilos so I can get even.”

I kept trying to run the numbers to see how it could work out using best-case scenarios. My thumbnail calculation: 250 trees producing 10kg each equals 2500kg or 5500lbs. Say he fetched awesome prices $10/lb for half of his lot and $5/lb for the other half. In that example, he would gross $41,250 for his year’s worth of work. From that he would pay approximately 1/3 in combined fees to his coop, exporter and national coffee board. Lowering his gross to $28,875. He also has to cover his expenses for running the farm for the entire year, save for next year, pay his taxes to his local, regional and national governments, and help his children go to school. But if instead of those fantastical prices he gets just a good price, something closer to reality, say $4.00 for half of his lot (still a great price) and $2.00 for the rest his yearly gross falls to $11,500. And he still has all of those other expenses to cover. For reference, today the c-market is trading just over $2.00.

Mr. Obobo repeated how frustrated he felt over the effects of the market, and how people far away were making money off of his work, and affecting how much he might earn, while have seemingly no concern of what it really meant to his life.

The Obobo family house on their farm in Nyeri, Kenya.

The Obobo family house on their farm in Nyeri, Kenya.

His exasperation evident, he said, “I had so many kilos, but what did it fetch for my family?” His family of six (two boys who had grown and left for the city, and two girls who were still at home) shared a tiny earthen brick house built into he hillside. Besides coffee, they grew much of their own food on their land and tried to grow some surplus they could sell (or trade) to neighbors. Electricity was scarce or nonexistent, and their water came from a catchment system.

He said he would like to see his children go into farming, but it’s a difficult life, and they would rather go to the city and go to college (even if that didn’t seem financially possible, it was their dream.) Mr. Obobo clearly wanted his children to stay on the family farm, but he understood that it held little appeal. It’s such hard work, and the rewards were so difficult to attain. “Farming is not slavery,” he said. “It’s a natural process. I’m feeding the community!”

He wondered repeatedly what Americans think of Africa, asking if they thought about it at all or if they just looked at a place to be exploited. “That black person is not an ape,” he said, “he is a human being. He has a right to live in this world!”

Pete Licata said to Mr. Obobo, “We want to be a part of the change in the industry where everybody benefits. Without you we don’t have any coffee. People are recognizing that you as a farmer are the most important person that we have.”

But Mr. Obobo said his experience lately has been one of disappointment, and he wondered if he would continue farming coffee. “At the end of the day,” he said, “you’ll miss this.”

“God has blessed us despite the challenges,” Mr. Obobo said, and he said he loved his farm, and felt a passion for farming, but it was getting harder all of time. “Don’t let that fire go out.”

About the Author

Ken

Kenneth R. Olson is co-founder and publisher of Barista Magazine the worldwide trade magazine for the professional coffee community. He has written extensively about specialty coffee, traveled near and far for stories, activities, and fun, and been invited to present on topics important to coffee culture. He is also an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Huskies. Go Blazers! Go Dawgs!