How a coffee estate turned to tourism to keep afloat amid COVID-19

Kenyan coffee bares a premium tag world over and is among the most sought after by international buyers due to its high quality, rich taste and aroma.

However, 2020 has been a challenging year for coffee sector as prices fell and demand subsided on account of buyers scaling down orders or cancelling them altogether due to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to hold the world at ransom.

15 kilometers from Nairobi central business district is a century-old coffee estate which continues with the tradition of producing high grade coffee.

Surrounded by newly built apartments whose exterior finishing leaves one mesmerized and have since replaced the old fertile coffee farms, Fairview Coffee Estate stands still on a 250-acres piece of land.

Many farmers have been forced to abandon coffee opting for other crops due to high cost of production and dismal earnings, while others cut the coffee trees and turned their farms int real estate.

I ask the Farm Manager George Mburu why after 111 years the farm is still in the business of coffee despite the onslaught form real estate developers.

“For us as Fairview, one thing that has made us to be consistent in coffee farming is that we usually do the best practices for our coffee to be sustainable so that our coffee is profitable,” said Mburu.

Fairview Coffee Estate is among a handful of producers of specialty coffee which have been known to fetch higher prices on the international market.

The estate produces 80,000kgs of coffee annually from its 72,000 trees.

“We are in the medium altitude zone making our coffee among the best coffees in Kenya. We grow arabica coffee with tree types of varieties, SL28, Ruiru11 and Batian” Geroge Mburu, the Farm Manager tells me as we have a chat in one of the gardens adjacent to a never-ending sound of water used in coffee processing fill nearby underground tanks.

The estate prides itself as a specialty coffee producer, exporting 80% of its highest grades AA, AB and PB, already roasted to buyers in Europe.

The coffee trees which have had their roots in the ground since 1909 are attended to using organic methods and are cut after every five years to grow a new stem which matures in two years.

Upon maturity, the coffee cherries are meticulously picked by hand, and by a group of women who are paid Kshs 120 per bucket of coffee.

“Instead of going to the farm to do a spray for pest and diseases, we are in a position to allow the predators to feed on the pests and diseases and then we retain our coffee fresh from the chemicals. When this coffee gets to the market and whenever it is being analysed, you find its of good quality and it doesn’t have any chemicals or residue remaining in it.”

Specialty coffee tend to fetch higher prices due to its organic farming techniques attributed to it.

And while some abandon coffee farming, the estate has adopted value addition to incorporate tourism as part of its strategy to increase sales and make extra income amid the health pandemic that either saw buyers cut orders or cancel them altogether.

“For us mostly we deal with production, anything to do with marketing we do on farm sales. The larger quantity goes through our Coffee Management Services which markets the bulk of our coffee. We try to encourage people to buy directly from the farm,” Mburu added.

In 2019, the farm received 12000 visitors with the number expected to be higher by close of 2020.

“Right now, coffee farming is facing a lot of challenges. If you look around so many people have quit coffee farming to do real estate. Tourism is value addition   and an extra income to make the business viable,” said Millicent Wanderwa who heads the estate’s tourism department.

Visitors at the farm are taken through the coffee milling process from farm, to picking of the cherries, sorting, grading, roasting and even get to taste various grades of coffee.

“Coffee tourism helps with extra income form gate entry fees, also roasting coffee and selling on the farm. Before tourism, most of the coffee was exported. With the tourism we have been able to roast it and package and sell it on farm,” said Wanderwa.

In 2019, the country produced 45,000 metric tonnes of coffee with export earnings amounting to Kshs. 16 billion.

While smallholder farmers under co-operative movements account for the largest share of total production, coffee estates have better yield per hectare at 543.2Kg per compared to 347.4kg per for estates.

Out of the total coffee produced last year, cooperatives produced 30.9 thousand tonnes on 90.8 hectares compared to 14.1 from the estates which occupy 25.4 hectares.


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