The vast majority of the coffee bought and sold in Kenya is traded through the national auction system, where marketing agents enter cooperatives’ and estates’ coffee and traders come to bid. The main buyers from this auction system are large multinationals, who then offer the lots to importers and roasters. Unfortunately, this has been the only way to purchase Kenyan coffee for a long time and we’ve become frustrated with the lack of transparency, poor service and price volatility. This year we have started buying directly from the auction using a local Kenyan company, who bid on the coffee on our behalf, after we have cupped through auction samples filtered by a local cupper. This was not only a conscious decision to support local, Kenyan businesses, but also to make the supply chain more efficient and save money, in order to pass on those savings to roasters. We hope that these savings help increase the presence of Kenyan coffees on roasters’ menus. This is intended to be the first part of a plan to work on the transparency limitations in Kenya and ultimately the goal is to avoid using the auction system at all, by working directly with farmers’ associations, cooperatives and small estates, and not through a marketing agent.
Gakuyu-ini is located in Kirinyaga County in the Central highlands of Kenya and is a member of the Thirikwa Cooperative Society. The factory is a set in a beautiful, fertile and forested location and is surrounded by thousands of smallholder subsistence farmers who grow coffee as a cash crop alongside potatoes, bananas, mangoes, avocados and some livestock. The average altitude of these smallholdings is approximately 1,650 MASL, a factor which contributes to the fine flavour of the coffee. The growers have the advantage of deep and rich soils that were created from the ash of the extinct volcano – Mount Kenya. Coffee varieties used by the farmers are mainly SL28, SL34, Ruiru 11, Batian and SL28 grafted onto Ruiru rootstock. The latter combines the hardy and disease resistant properties of Ruiru 11 with the fine cup of SL28.
The Gakuyu-ini factory processes coffee using methods typical throughout Kenya. Local people are paid to pick the ripe coffee cherries between October and January and these are pulped using disc pulpers in the wet mill. The water used to convey the resulting mucilage coated beans also aids quality separation by density since heavier beans sink in the water whilst lighter beans float on the surface. By channelling these beans separately three grades of parchment coffee are created; P1 (the best), P2 and P3. The parchment coffee is then channelled into large tanks where dry fermentation occurs during the following 24 hours or so. Once the mucilage is loose, the beans take on a pebble-like feel and so the fermentation process is halted by washing the beans in channels full of water, where further quality separation takes place, since low grade ‘floaters’ can be directed away from the dense high-quality beans. Next the parchment coffee is channelled to a soak tank where it sits in cold water for around 24 hours, a process which is thought to contribute to Kenyan coffee’s unique flavours.
Next the parchment is laid in a thin layer upon raised beds and allowed to dry under the sun for between 11 and 14 days. The coffee then undergoes a period of storage or ‘resting’ before being delivered to a mill where the parchment will be removed, and the coffee screened and cleaned to remove any defects. It will then be graded by size to create AA, AB, PB etc and finally it will be packed in grain-pro lined bags or in vacuum packs ready for export.