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A Short History of Kenya Coffee

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

Our review process | Our team

Have you ever wondered about the history of Kenya coffee? I mean, how did Kenya got involved in the coffee industry?

Have you ever wondered about the history of Kenya coffee? I mean, how did Kenya got involved in the coffee industry?

Kenyan coffee is respected the world over. But, how did Kenya earn its stellar coffee reputation?

Obviously, it helps that Kenya has the ideal conditions to grow top-quality coffee – the soil is rich with volcanic minerals and nutrients, the weather is mild and wet, and the high altitudes make for a longer growing season.

That said, there’s so much more to this story than geography!

If you’re a coffee aficionado in love with Kenyan coffee, or even if you’ve never tasted it before and want to know more about its history, this post is for you.

How Did It All Begin?

History of Kenya Coffee: Drying coffee cherries in the sun

The history of Kenya coffee all began in the late 1800s when European missionaries imported the Bourbon variety of Arabica coffee from Brazil. They planted the first coffee trees at Bura in the Taita Hills, at Kibwezi in 1900, and then at Kikuyu and Thika in 1904.

Kenya was a British colony (East Africa Protectorate) at the time, in which the British saw an opportunity to cultivate coffee in East Africa – and they seized the land in which to do it. 

White settlers began to grow the crop, procuring labor from indigenous Kenyans for cheap. By 1900, there were almost 50 coffee plantations in the country.

History of Kenya Coffee: A Kenyan Woman Picking ripe cherries

At first, coffee growing in Kenya was not commercial, and there were no regulations on farming, production, processing, grading and marketing.

The Start of Commercial Coffee Growing?

Although coffee originated in Ethiopia in the 9th century, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that it took hold commercially in Kenya, thanks to the efforts of a British settler named George Williamson.

By 1903, Williamson had more than 1,000 acres under tea and coffee cultivation in Kenya. His farm developed into the center of a small but thriving Kenyan coffee-growing industry in the 1930s, with most plantations owned by European settlers.

Since then, Kenya has significantly expanded its production of coffee beyond these areas to other lands around Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon, the Aberdare Range, the Rift Valley, Western Highlands and the Lake Region.

Nowadays, in addition to large-scale operations, small-scale farmers also grow coffee on privately owned farms. In fact, approximately six million Kenyans make their livelihood in the coffee sector today.

History of Kenya Coffee in Film

Left, Karen Blixen before leaving for Africa. Right, Karen Blixen Beside Denys Finch-Hatton

If you’re a fan of the film Out of Africa, you might have heard of Baroness Karen Blixen, played by Meryl Streep. The film depicts her coffee farm in the Ngong Hills, southwest of Nairobi.

Born in Denmark in 1885, Baroness Blixen dreamed of living and owning a coffee farm in Kenya. In 1913, that dream came true when she bought the land that would later become her beloved home.

She was one of the first people to grow coffee in Kenya. However, as more people pursued coffee farming, prices dropped. Consequently, Karen found herself stuck with high production costs and low prices. 

She eventually went bankrupt and returned to Denmark, where she died in 1962. Her book, Out of Africa, inspired the making of this famous Academy Award-winning romance drama. 

Kenyan Coffee on the International Market

Sacks of Kenya coffee

The first breakthrough for Kenyan coffee on the international market came in 1931 when British settlers formed the Kenya Planters Coffee Union (KPCU). They formed this union to promote the marketing of their produce and help them get better prices. It would be another ten years before this goal became a reality, with the KPCU exporting beans overseas – initially to Britain.

The Role of the Coffee Board of Kenya – CBK

A decade after the first coffee auction took place, the colony established the Coffee Marketing Board (CMB) in 1946 to cater to coffee marketing activities. It became operational in July 1947 but gave way in 1971 to the Coffee Board of Kenya (CBK).

As an autonomous body established by an Act of Parliament in 1982 (amended in 1999) to promote, develop and coordinate coffee production and marketing activities in Kenya, the CBK is responsible for marketing all Kenyan coffee exports. It also sets quality standards and monitors quality at processing mills and factories throughout the country.

Other Roles of the CBK

  • Develops policies to enhance coffee production, processing, and local and global marketing

  • Oversees registration and licensing

  • Coordinates all coffee production activities

  • Promotes research into improving coffee production technology

  • Provides advice on matters relating to coffee production

  • Provides financial assistance to farmers

The CBK’s primary goal is to ensure that Kenyan coffee remains competitive on the world market and continues generating much-needed foreign exchange. The board has achieved this by setting up a series of initiatives that improve quality control, increase productivity and ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their produce.

To this end, the CBK introduced an electronic auction system in 1998 that facilitates electronic bidding for all types of coffee produced by growers and traders across Kenya.

Today, there are two types of auctions:

  1. A daily auction was conducted at the CBK’s headquarters in Nairobi

  2. Monthly auctions held at various satellite locations throughout the country

How Does Kenya Sell Her Coffee on the International Market Today?

Scoop of green coffee

Kenya coffee is one of the most popular coffees in the world thanks to its berry flavors, full body and bold acidity. But, how does it get from the farm to your cup?

Coffee farmers or cooperative unions sell green coffee (the milled kind) through one of two channels:

  1. Auction

  2. Direct sales

At the weekly Nairobi Coffee Exchange Auction, marketing agents contracted by coffee growers sell the coffee to licensed coffee exporters in 110 lb (50 kg) bag bids.

With direct sales, grower marketers (a.k.a. growers licensed to market their coffee) export coffee directly to buyers in other countries. 

Kenya exports most of her coffee unprocessed (green coffee).

Top Five Exporters of Kenya AA Coffee

Pouring green coffee into a roaster

The top five exporters of Kenya AA coffee are: 

  1. C. Dorman Green Coffee Merchants

  2. Kenya Co-operative Coffee Exporters Limited

  3. Mwangi Coffee Exporters

  4. Rockbern Coffee Group

  5. Sannex Coffee

Why Do People Love Kenya Coffee So Much?

Drinking a cup of Kenya coffee

Everything, even coffee, is a product of its environment.

Kenya’s famous Arabica coffee grows at the high altitudes of Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon and the Western highlands, between altitudes of 4,900 to 6,800 feet (1,494 – 2,073 meters). These altitudes give the country’s coffee bean its unique characteristics.

You see, the elevation helps the coffee trees grow slowly, allowing ample time for the shrubs to develop. This slow growth also allows for lots of nutrients to get to the coffee cherries, producing a deep, bright flavor profile discerned within every sip.

Thus, Kenya’s unique landscape contributes significantly to its one-of-a-kind flavor profile full of acidity, sweetness and fruity notes. Think blackcurrant, honey, and caramelized sugar, peaches and citrus, with notes of lavender and toasted nuts.

How Kenya Coffee Is Grown

Coffee cherries spread out

Although where coffee grows greatly influences its quality and taste profile, how it’s grown matters too.

Kenyans are fastidious about coffee growing and are committed to protecting the quality of their coffee.

Small and large-scale farmers carefully prune shrubs, harvest cherries, and process beans to yield an unmatched quality under the strict guidance of the Coffee Board of Kenya.

At harvest time, farmers remove the coffee beans from the cherries. Then, they ferment and wash them in water to remove the excess pulp. The coffee cherries are then dried in the sun on raised beds. Later, farmers separate them according to size, density and quality. This is the step where peaberry coffee beans are also sorted out for inspection.

Export-quality Kenya AA coffee beans are the largest, most dense, and best tasting.

Washed Coffee Processing in Rwanda and Kenya

Wet processing causes coffee beans to have a delicious mouthfeel, a full body of flavor and a heavy acidity. Once dried to 11-12% moisture levels, the coffee beans are hand-sorted, packed and transported to the coffee mills for parchment removal and final packaging.

The next time you’re in need of a really good cup of joe, see if you can find Kenya AA beans at your preferred roaster.

What’s Next for Kenya Coffee?

A coffee sign on a cafe

Coffee is BIG in Kenya. Like, REALLY BIG!

While it wasn’t always the case, coffee now makes up a significant portion of the Kenyan economy and export market.

Only the highest quality Arabica beans (Kenya AA) make it to the international market. The majority of these beans end up in the United States, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Korea. 

Kenyans consume the lower-grade coffee locally, but don’t think this coffee is nothing to write home about! Locally-consumed Kenya coffee is equally good, with brands like Java Coffee, Dorman’s Coffee and Spring Valley Coffee dominating the local market.

Kenyan Cafes

You can always try a cup or two at one of these cafes:

  1. Java Coffee: This chain is one of the most popular coffee shops with branches all over the country. They even offer a delivery service for those days when you just can’t make it out of bed. Their menu features classic blends and new varieties made from single-origin Ethiopian and Kenyan AA beans, as well as pastries and savory delights.

  2. Dorman’s Coffee: This brand has been around since 1950 and continues to be one of the most popular coffee shops in Nairobi due to its delicious brews and friendly staff. Dorman’s also offers an excellent selection of pastries and snacks for those looking for something sweet along with their morning cuppa joe.

  3. Artcaffé: This Kenyan coffee chain opened its first restaurant at Westgate Mall in Nairobi’s upmarket Westlands district. They have 36 outlets across Kenya and serve signature Artcaffé Kenyan coffee and delicious food in beautiful and elegant spaces backed by the highest service levels.

  4. Spring Valley Coffee: This brand has been around since 2009, beginning life as a neighborhood coffee shop in Nairobi’s affluent Spring Valley neighborhood. They sell their high-quality coffee in leading supermarkets and grocery stores.

The Future of Coffee Production in Kenya

Unripe coffee cherries

The future looks bright for Kenya coffee. As reported by All Africa, the East African nation earned approximately 213 million US dollars from coffee exports in 2021. That surpassed 2020 earnings, which totaled 196 million US dollars.

According to Business Daily Africa, the World Bank announced that it would be contributing 15 million USD to Kenya’s coffee sector in 2020. The goal? To help support the production of coffee and improve the livelihoods of small-holder farmers in that sector.

With this massive aid investment and the government’s continued commitment to supporting coffee farmers, we predict that the value and quality of Kenya’s coffee exports will only get better!

Do you love Kenya AA coffee? What’s your preferred method of brewing? If you have any tips that would be good for the Coffeeness community, please add them in the comments below.

Your coffee expert
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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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