NYERI, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For more than 50 years, farmers in Central Kenya have been growing coffee as their main cash crop with little knowledge of how they were contributing to changes in the climatic conditions around Mount Kenya, the Abadares Mountains and other high altitude areas.
But today a share of Kenya’s Fairtrade-certified coffee farms are gradually swapping the wooden coffee drying tables they have used for decades for metal tables – and in the process saving the highland region’s large trees that are vital in protecting rainfall patterns in the region.
Since launching in 1961, the three factories of the Ndumberi Coffee Growers Cooperative Society – where more than 10,000 families take their coffee for processing and marketing – have used large wooden tables to dry their coffee cherries.
The wooden tables are constructed from strong poles as stands. Timber frames are placed on top with wire mesh on which sisal sacks or polythene paper is placed to hold the coffee cherries to dry.
Each year the factories have to cut down several mature trees to construct the wooden drying tables, which often must be replaced annually.
But now “we have realised that the factories have no more trees to cut down in order to construct the wooden drying tables”, said Stanley Kihiu, the society chairman.
Another society, Rumukia Farmers Cooperative, has eight coffee factories and each of them needs five mature trees each year to construct the wooden drying tables. The society produces 3.5 million kilograms of coffee cherries each year on a total of 802 hectares of land.
“We are continuing to cut a lot of trees which we do not have at our factories. We have eight factories and each cuts down four to five big trees per year”, said John Muriuki, the society manager.
And the tables don’t last. Charles Muriuki, chairman of the Gikanda Farmers Cooperative, another coffee society, said wooden drying tables are quickly destroyed by termites and rain.
James Njuguna the factory manager for Rumukia Cooperative society, said wooden tables are also prone to becoming uneven, which can affect the quality of the coffee, a concern when selling to an international market.
Now, however, after talks with Fairtrade Africa, an organisation that helps farmers sell their coffee on the international markets through Fairtrade certification, farmers increasingly understand why felling trees is not something good for the climate, or their own future.
“We keep on cutting down trees and compromising the situation of our catchment area,” Muriuki said.
Kenya’s highlands face a major deforestation problem as a result of timber harvesting, population movement into forests and corrupt land deals, experts say.
THE BENEFITS OF METAL
Now most of the coffee cooperative societies are turning to metallic drying tables which are long lasting, cost effective and clean. The societies are able to afford the tables because they have been certified by Fairtrade and receive premiums for their crop, with the extra money going to help the communities.
Muriuki said the cost of one metallic drying table is quite high but it is almost a lifetime investment.
“The cost of making these (metal) tables is about 80,000ksh ($941) for one but it (lasts) for a very long time, as compared to the wooden table which costs around 20,000Ksh ($235) but needs replacement each year. We only need paint for the metallic tables and only 5000sh ($59) is enough to buy paint for all the metallic tables in one factory,” he said.
Kihiu, the chairman for Ndumberi Coffee growers cooperative society, said some factories have been forced to turn to metal drying tables because of a lack of mature trees to cut down. In his society, there are now 15 metal drying tables being used, he said.
“If we can change from wooden to metallic, we shall save a lot of trees and we shall protect our climate,” Kihiu said.
According to Jennifer Mbuvi, the liaison officer at Fairtrade Labeling International, the use of metal drying tables is being encouraged because they bring a range of benefits, among them cleaner coffee and fewer problems with ants.
“Out of the 34 cooperatives now certified, 70 percent of them are converting (to metal tables), some fully, some still in the process”, she said.
Those still to convert in some cases lack the finances to do so, or have recently installed wooden drying tables they hope will last a bit longer, she said. But “what is for sure is that any new beds under construction in every cooperative or factory are now metallic.”
Mbuvi says some cooperatives that are not yet Fairtrade certified have gotten help from other donor-funded programmes to install metal coffee drying tables.
Statistics from Kenya’s Coffee Board show that about 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) of land in Kenya are used to grow coffee, mainly in the east of the Rift Valley, Western and Taita hills. By 2005, there were 700,000 smallholder coffee farmers organized in to nearly 600 cooperatives.
Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.