Kenya’s Premium Problem: How Africa’s Best Coffees Become Contraband

Every time we graciously welcome a new coffee into our collection here at Cooper & Co., we like to dig around a bit. Usually, this involves us seeing how well a coffee performs at different roast levels in order to get the best out of the beans, scrutinising the espresso for tasting notes and little surprise hints of flavours we didn’t expect. We also look at the background of the coffee, the origins of the beans and the processes they go through from coffea arabica to roasted bean, and the communities that produce these wonderful coffees.

For this particular coffee, I wanted to dig a little deeper. What we’ve got this time around is a spectacular example of great Kenyan Top AA coffee from the Thangaini Cooperative, a collective of farms based around Mount Kinangop in the Nyandarua mountain range. This is one of those coffees that doesn’t pop up too often, and we’re particularly lucky to be able to bring it in to our island for you to get to grips with!

In researching the background of this coffee I was reminded of the insecurity faced by many in the developing world, especially when these economies are trading in cash crops. The dependency on climate conditions in particular is cause for concern, but what caught my eye in the case of coffee from Thangaini was the vulnerability to organised crime, corruption and theft. The issue arises from the incredible quality of coffee that Kenya produces, and the higher the quality, the more susceptible to theft the cooperatives become. This trend in stolen goods has cost lives, ruined livelihoods and seriously affected the trust farmers place in the cooperatives and government officials. The thefts occur in the cooperative’s factories, where the farmer’s produce is stored and processed, prompting calls for extensive security measures to protect the goods and even the farms in which the coffee is grown.

The head of the Thangaini Cooperative, Hiram Mwaniki, agrees with this, hiring poorly equipped security to guard the factories against attacks from criminals. More often than not however, the thieves are well-armed, carrying weaponry such as guns or machetes to either frighten, or in some cases cause serious damage to the hired guards.

But what is happening to the stolen coffee? Such high-quality coffee is not usually sold within Kenya itself, and is set aside for export, so the internal market is not the destination. Instead, there is considerable evidence for the Kenyan coffee being smuggled into Uganda, where the quality of coffee is far below the standard set by its neighbour to the East. Once the coffee has arrived in Uganda, it is blended with the local, cheaper coffee, and exported out of Uganda to the wider global market. The stolen coffee is tremendously difficult to trace, and often the cooperatives and in turn the farmers are not compensated for the loss. The Ugandan government remains relatively quiet on the allegations of smuggling.

The distrust in Kenya surrounding this issue has risen to such high levels that Mr. Mwaniki of Thangaini Cooperative accuses government officials, border control and even members of his own cooperative of collusion with the thieves. Concerns about the criminals’ knowledge of the factory locations, police indifference and non-adherence to crime reporting, and an unusually porous border point to a culture of corruption amongst Kenya’s coffee industry. Ultimately, as pointed out in Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s Risk Bulletin, ‘as long as Kenyan coffee remains in high demand both globally and regionally, criminal actors will continue to carry out targeted heists in search of quick money.’ This issue is clearly not disappearing overnight, then.

The issues around premium quality Kenyan coffee is an interesting case study in the vulnerabilities that we, as consumers, do not necessarily take into account when we order that cappuccino or grab a cup of filter. What I’m saying with this post is that we need to have an awareness of the world around us and the things that happen thousands of miles away really do affect us all, even if we live on a tiny island in the English Channel.

We’ve managed to get one of the top coffees from Kenya, and we’re so excited to share it with you. We’ll be roasting the beans shortly, and it’ll be available on our website and in our store in St Helier, with a full breakdown of profile, and a little bit of information on the journey that your cup of coffee has taken to get here.


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