Kenya coffee growers hit as lockdowns close global coffee shops

FILE PHOTO: Ngatia Wanjohi, a Kenyan farmer tends his coffee at his farm in Gichatha-ini village in Nyeri County, 125 Kilometers North of Kenyas capital Nairobi./Getty Images

Kenya coffee farmers and dealers have been hard hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Coffee exporter Jackson Kanampiu is among those who have been impacted heavily as consumers are barred from the coffee shops that serve niche brews and opt for shop-bought offerings.

Kanampiu spent four years building a business in speciality coffees as the price of basic beans fell, only to see the cafes he supplies cancelling their orders due to coronavirus lockdowns.

“We have almost ground to zero,” said Nairobi-based Kanampiu. “The corona has really affected us.”

Global consumers are still drinking coffee, but few are visiting cafes. Instead they are buying medium-quality supermarket beans to drink at home, foregoing high-end coffee shop offerings and spelling disaster for specialist suppliers.

Half of Kanampiu’s sales have nosedived as customers in China and the United States have cancelled orders from his company Eagle Crown Coffee since the pandemic hit.

It’s not just a problem in Kenya. Matthew Harrison, a buyer at speciality coffee sourcing company Trabocca, said global demand for speciality coffee has plummeted in recent weeks.

“We have clients in Asia who have reported 60% reductions in volumes in the first three months of the year,” Harrison said. “This is likely to be the case for Europe over the next few months.”

One prominent European speciality trader who declined to be named said the coronavirus had driven down speciality coffee demand in the United States and Europe by 40%.

Another Kenyan exporter, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said his speciality coffee shipments to Asia – especially small-batch consignments made by air – had been cancelled.

Top importers have stockpiled supermarket quality beans, but not speciality offerings, dealers say.

For the Kenyan economy it’s a particular blow.

Kenya is only the world’s 21st-largest coffee producer, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but around half its sales are speciality-grade coffee, according to the Speciality Coffee Association. That makes it especially vulnerable to the speciality bean crash.

About 800,000 Kenyans grow coffee, according to the International Coffee Organization, and the sector is one of Kenya’s top five foreign exchange earners.

There’s little domestic demand, so more than 95% of production is exported, USDA data shows. Now coffee, along with Kenya’s other top earners – tourism, and exports of flowers and fresh produce – is getting hammered.