I’d been wanting to visit East Africa again for the past 6 years so when the chance of some farms visits came up around the EAFCA conference, I was all set…
We’ve been buying from Gethumbwini Estate in Thika for several years now and the coffee has become very firmly established with many roasters for its big body, blackcurrant flavours and lingering grapefruit aftertaste. That said, not all the lots that come out of this large estate are of the same high quality and we cup many samples ahead of the weekly Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) auctions before buying.
But things are changing in Thika and the road north out of Nairobi is now strewn with flower farms and large plots of land which were until recently coffee farms but are now being developed for housing or lie abandoned. There is now also a direct threat to the continued production of high-quality coffee at Gethumbwini – the owners, SOCFINAF, are selling the estate along with the several other coffee estates in their portfolio. The first to go was Tatu Estate (meaning ‘third’ in Swahili) and quality has fallen since the new owners took over. Right now, there is considerable uncertainly about the future and Gethumbwini is not able to host visitors. But we will monitor events at Gethumbwini closely and have already approached other estates with comparable quality coffees to ensure that our supply is not adversely affected should Gethumbwini also succumb to pressures of land development and sub-division of the large estates in this region.
So, westwards and on to Chania Region and Makwa Estate (which took a bit of finding!). This delightful farm is located close to the town of Gatukuyu at around 1,700m and covers 92 hectares. It has been under the current ownership since the 1970s. Neighbouring farms have taken up cultivation of macadamia nut (known locally as Kenya nut) but Makwa remains committed to the cultivation of specialty coffee.
Makwa and the other farms in this region are located close to the equator and this climate produces two crops each year. The main or ‘late’ crop flowers after the long rains in April/May and is harvested from October-December and accounts for around 75% of the farms annual crop. The smaller fly or ‘early’ crop flowers after the short rains of October/November and is picked in May-August and makes up the remaining 25% of the crop.
We bought a small lot from this farm at a recent NCE auction and found the coffee to be full-bodied with notes of peach and a lingering aftertaste. Most of the farm is planted under SL28 and K7 varietals. A smaller experimental 4 hectare plot of Ruiru 11 (a hybrid of Catimor and SL34) was established as this varietal is resistant to coffee berry disease (CBD), a fungal infection which is widespread in Kenya, and leaf rust so does not require any spraying though the coffee has proved less successful in the cup.
Farm manager, Alex, and group agronomist, Sylvester Kyendy, from Tropical Farm Management Kenya (Neumann Kaffee Gruppe) welcomed me to walk the farm. Climate change is changing the way coffee is cultivated at Makwa. Indigenous trees are being planted to establish a canopy and provide shade to balance the effects of increased hours of sun coupled with lack of rain in recent years that have stressed the coffee plants and caused an uneven and extended maturation of the crop. The shade cover should help redress this problem. Makwa follows the framework established under the 4C programme.
The yield achieved on Makwa is high at 1,700kg/ha. The original root stock dates back 100 years. Every 5 years the coffee plants are cut back to force new growth. This optimises yield and help to strengthen the plants against CBD.
Throughout the plots, shallow basins are dug between the coffee plants to capture rainwater and prevent run off. These are covered in leaf mulch to further prevent moisture loss through evaporation, ensuring the plants have water to sustain them in the dry months.
Theft of parchment from drying tables across Kenya is a problem when the price approaches $4.00. This is easily sold on to unscrupulous mill owners and then anonymously bulked. Drying tables on the farms are surrounded by fencing and most employ night watchmen.
The parchment is collected and then taken for dry milling at the SOCFINAF mill. With the demise of the SOCFINAF group in coffee in this region, future crops from Makwa will be taken to a new dry milling facility owned by the Neumann group.
Housing and gardens are provided for the 120-strong workforce and are located close to the drying tables and milling facility. As many as 300 people are employed on the farm at the peak of the picking, mostly women who remain the backbone of the rural economy in much of Africa.
Tiny and agile dik-dik antelope are common on the farm and small vervet monkeys live in the larger trees in the protected wooded areas.
Makwa is currently seeking to raise the funds for refurbishment work on their wet mill such as the re-plastering of the fermentation tanks every two years.
Tinganga Estate is another new additional to the expanding range of Kenyan coffees that we buy through the auctions. Again, we picked this coffee out from a selection of samples ahead of one of the recent auctions and found this particular lot to be sweet and full-bodied with notes of plum and dark fruits, sugar cane, pineapple and grapefruit.
Tinganga is one of three farms under the charge of Group Manager and agronomist, Charles Njoroge, who showed me around the farm and wet mill facility. Tinganga is one of the several coffee states owned by publicly quoted Sasini Tea & Coffee which manages a total of 8 coffee farms covering around 1,000 hectares all of which are located at over 1,630m in the Thika and Nyeri regionsand are certified under Utz Kapeh. Each estate retains 5-13% of its land under forest and a further 2-10% under grass for mulch and 5-10% is set aside for kitchen gardens for workers. Black-and-white colobus monkeys inhabit some of the protected forest areas on the farm.
Tingana is located at 1,830m and the highest plots on the farm reach 1,900m. The farm is very well-managed and the yield averages around 1,600kg/ha. At the peak of the harvest, the farm provides employment for close to 1,000 local workers – mostly women pickers – and retains around 400 workers year round. Permanent staff are provided with accommodation and a 1/4 acre plot for cultivation of fruit and vegetables for their own consumption.
The primary varietals planted are SL28, SL34 and K7. The entire crop is dried of raised beds which – in common with many farms in the region – are protected by secure fencing.
With the demise of the SOCFINAF group, Sasini will become the largest milling group in Kenya. The new milling facility in Thika can process a total of 12 tonnes of parchment an hour at the four milling plants at the facility and has the capacity to process half of the entire Kenyan coffee crop!
Charles also maintains an extensive and immaculate nursery at Tinganga. This provides the farm with new coffee plants, shade canopy tree species and many ornamental plants to enhance the natural environment on the farm. There is also a large kitchen garden next to the original farm house which produces an abundance of fruit, vegetables and herbs.
Blackburn Estate, Mt. Oldeani, Tanzania
Blackburn Estate lies along the southern border of the Ngorongoro Crater, a haven for wildlife and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Animals are entirely free to wander beyond the unfenced park boundaries – lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and many other species roam through the coffee and forest areas of the farm at night. There are also two large troops of baboons numbering more than 100 individuals that occasionally roost overnight in the large mature trees at the north-west boundary of the coffee area though efforts are always made to discourage these animals as they eat the coffee!
The farm is overshadowed by Mount Oldeani (meaning ‘bamboo mountain’) to the east which stands at 3,188m and covers a total area of 455 hecatares (1,124 acres). Most of the land is set aside as natural habitats such as savannah, grassland and thick bush. This, in turn, supports a huge variety of wildlife species.
Around the farm, several small pyres of coffee parchment and red chillies are set on the windward boundaries of the coffee plots to deter elephants from damaging the coffees plants. Special bio-corridors have also been established to funnel the larger animals around the farm to the east and west.
The areas under coffee are located at an altitude of 1,760m to 1,950m. Coffee represents only around 187 acres (16%) of the whole farm.
Planting of indigenous shade canopy is also being extended on those slopes most exposes to the sun. New areas of coffee are now being established on the eastern and southern fringes of the farm. These new areas will provide special pickings for micro-lots in the coming seasons.
In previous years, spot applications of insecticide were required to control against green scale. But since the introduction of bio-control with seven separate species of ladybird – one of which is as yet unknown to science – this is no longer necessary. No tilling is carried out. Weeds are controlled by careful application of glyphosate. A leaf mulch of organic waste materials from the mill is then spread between the coffee plants to prevent re-growth and to lock moisture into the soil to sustain the coffee plants during the dry seasons.
Blackburn has its own very well-organised wet milling facility. Water from a spring high on Mount Oldeani supplies 2 reservoirs adjacent to the mill for pulping. All the coffee is dried on raised screens (also known as African beds).
After drying, the coffee from Blackburn is sent for dry milling in Moshi and is packed in 60kg bags made of sisal, a coarse fibre similar to jute but made from the sinuous leaves of the agave plant. Jute bags are prohibited in Tanzania to protect the local sisal industry. The sisal bags are free of the characteristic odour of jute.
Blackburn organises donations for the Health and Education sector in Kataru district. Between 2003 and 2005, a dispensary just outside the farm was constructed with the help of the village and a rain water harvesting plant for the village was also constructed.
Our thanks to Michael & Tina at Blackburn Estate and also to our hosts at Makwa and Tinganga for their kind hospitality. We look forward very much to returning to these fabulous farms in the near future…!