Situated on the equator on Africa’s east coast, Kenya has been described as “the cradle of humanity”, due to the fact that in the Great Rift Valley, palaeontologists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of man’s ancestors. Kenya’s topography is incredibly diverse. The country is a land of mountains, valleys, open plains, deserts, forests, lakes, savannahs and a golden sanded coastline. With its scenic beauty and abundant wildlife, Kenya is one of Africa’s major tourist destinations.
Coffee was introduced to Kenya by French Missionaries, with seeds from Reunion Island in the 19th century. Despite its proximity to Ethiopia – the birthplace of coffee – documents suggest that its introduction to Kenya wasn’t until around 1893, with the first crop of coffee yielding in 1896. Though large estates run by British colonial settlers were initially established, the Coffee Act of 1933 paved the way for the Kenyan Coffee Board, who began to oversee coffee production, quality control and auctioning. The introduction of the Swynnerton Plan in the 1950s successfully implemented family smallholdings and the cultivation of both cash and subsistence crops side by side. This dramatically increased smallholder incomes in the following decade, of which coffee accounted for around 55% of this increase. Today, around 70% of Kenya’s coffee is produced by smallholder farmers. Typically, a Kenyan smallholding or ‘shamba’ is comprised of shade-grown coffee, a house, the family cow and a variety of vegetables and fruit to sustain the family.
Kenya uses a grading system for all its coffee exports, based on the screen size of coffee beans. AA grades – above 18 screen size – reach the highest price at auction, followed by AB, PB, C and several under-grade qualities, respectively.
The development of hybrids during the 1930s brought about the highly successful SL28 and SL34 varietals – coffees that are now world famous and highly admired for their wonderful complexity in the cup and unrivalled lemony acidity. The country’s best coffees are grown in the Central Highlands on the southern slopes of Mt. Kenya to the north and in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains to the west. Here coffee is grown on farms with altitudes of up to 1,800 metres above sea level and this, along with the fertile volcanic soils of the region, are key to the unbelievable flavours that can be found within the cup. The best coffees in Kenya are also produced by cooperatives, of which there are around 300 comprised of between half a million to 600,000 smallholder members. About 60% of Kenya’s coffee is produced by cooperatives, with estates and plantations making up the balance.