Joris Tielens

2 november 2020


Growing coffee can bring Kenyan farmers a good income, but it is also a risky business. COVID, climate change and volatile markets make resilience a higher priority than ever. Diversifying coffee production with dairy and food crops proves to be a good way to increase coffee farmers’ resilience. ‘Resilience is no longer a nice to have. It is necessary.’ The first of two articles on ways farmers can diversify.

Travelling through Kenya, one is likely to pass through vast areas of bright green hills covered with tea. Coffee is another well-known export commodity that Kenya is famous for. The country’s export sector has attracted significant investment, with various programmes supporting its development and the government striving to establish a favourable business environment for export companies. The reason for the focus on export of coffee is the crop’s income-generating capacity and the foreign exchange it brings. But what does this mean for food security and the resilience of the entire food system in the longer term?

Rachel Wanyoike

‘Farmers are still happy to grow coffee as long as it provides them with an adequate income,’ says Rachel Wanyoike, the Managing Director at Solidaridad East & Central Africa, based in Nairobi. ‘In the past, coffee farmers were capable of putting their kids in school, using the money they earned from coffee. Some of our own staff have been educated through coffee money. Clearly at some point the coffee sector was very lucrative, but now the global supply chains have changed, and farmers get less for their coffee. There is a need for fairer value distribution throughout the coffee chain.’

Yet, many farmers still like to grow coffee for the income it generates. The problem is that this income comes only twice a year: for an early crop and the main crop. Global coffee prices are fluctuating, while farmers need to make investments – in new trees, fertiliser, fungicides and pesticides. All in all, it is an uncertain business. ‘Many coffee farmers are struggling to get by, as they wait too long to receive payments for the bags of cherries they produce,’ says Wanyoike. Farmers may be food insecure for as long as three or four months in a year.

‘This year in East Africa, in addition to the COVID pandemic hindering exports and sales, our coffee farmers also faced locusts and flooding,’ Wanyoike adds. What is needed, she says, is resilience: the ability of a household, a community or a sector to withstand, adapt and quickly recover from setbacks and shocks. ‘Resilience is no longer a nice to have. It is necessary. We need to build our farmers and producers’ capacities to tackle change.’

As part of the Food Security through Improved Resilience of Smallholder Coffee Farmers in Ethiopia and Kenya (FOSEK) project, Solidaridad aims to increase coffee farmers’ resilience by encouraging them to diversify their production – integrating dairy and local food crops into their farming system. Wanyoike: ‘The idea is to not put all your eggs in one basket.’ FOSEK is a public-private partnership around food security, funded by the Dutch Government through the Facility for Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Food Security (FDOV). Started in 2012, it will continue until 2021, working with private partners like Nestlé, Ecom and Dorman as well as farmer cooperative unions in Ethiopia and commercial service providers in Kenya. FOSEK has reached 120,000 farmers in Kenya and Ethiopia, providing technical assistance and hands-on capacity building on how to produce coffee in combination with dairy and other local food crops, and hardware investments to establish coffee and food crop nurseries, storage facilities and dairy hubs.

Producing dairy and vegetables like amaranth, pumpkin and spinach, sweet potatoes,  beans and peas, and fruits like banana and avocados, has enhanced farming households’ access to a wide range of nutritious foods. Selling the surplus via local markets brings farmers a steadier income that can supplement the intermittent proceeds from coffee. This further contributes to food and nutrition security at the national level, says Victor Mirori, the Project Manager for FOSEK at Solidaridad East & Central Africa.

Victor Mirori

There are many more advantages of the combination, according to Mirori. In partnership with the Kenyan Coffee Research Institute, Solidaridad is also advising farmers on crops that are particularly suitable for intercropping with coffee – beans and legumes, for instance, enhance soil fertility. Dairy provides nutritious milk to the farmer’s family and using cattle manure as fertiliser increases the yield of the coffee trees. Planting avocado or banana trees brings shade, under which coffee grows well. ‘This also helps adaptation to climate change,’ says Mirori. ‘Intercropping coffee with food crops and combining it with dairy is quite symbiotic.’

‘We saw a tremendous increase in the volumes of coffee produced after food crops and dairy had been integrated,’ Mirori adds. Also, the quality of the coffee improved, yielding the farmers better prices and returns.

Resilience is also about protecting the environment, says Wanyoike. Water and soil conservation are important to ensure that coffee can be produced sustainably in the future, she explains. ‘Our approach is farmer first – we provide support to improve farming methods, and better information empowers farmers to make better decisions.’ The tree nurseries, the milk collection centres, and the growing and selling of food crops, were all set up as business cases in the FOSEK programme, organised around farmer cooperatives. ‘Joint investments by the project and farmers through the cooperative, coupled with capacity enhancement and entrepreneurial mentorship, enhance ownership and profitability,’ says Wanyoike. And that ensures sustainability after the project has phased out.

Diversifying the activities that farmers undertake increases their resilience, concludes Wanyoike. ‘Our experience shows that it is possible to combine export agriculture with activities aimed at producing local food crops for the domestic market.’ Read more about this tomorrow in the second article on diversification.

In the autumn of 2020, Vice Versa publishes a series of articles on transforming African food systems to provide sufficient and healthy food to the growing population, while at the same time generating income and employment for the increasing number of young people. Our aim is to generate debate on this important topic within the Dutch international cooperation sector, running up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.
The series is an initiative of Vice Versa in cooperation with Solidaridad, IDH Sustainable trade, Wageningen University & Research and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, merging into the Netherlands Food Partnership this year

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