Notes from the Field: COVID-19 in Kenya
By Samuel Thuo, WCR Country Agronomist Kenya
On July 7, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announced that movement restrictions in place in the country since March would be lifted, a critically important change as the country heads into the main coffee harvest season. The last months have not been easy for Kenyan farmers, including those participating in a network of on-farm research trials established by World Coffee Research in partnership with African Coffee Roasters.
When Kenya reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 12, most Kenyans couldn’t have imagined the virus was about to turn their lives upside down. Scenes from the coffee sector in early March still looked largely as normal: Langat Kibet, a coffee farmer in Kichawir, Kericho, had recently come back from the large Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, where he had attended the African Fine Coffees Exhibition and Conference, and was upbeat from the fruitful interactions and engagements.
The previous week, in my role as WCR’s Country Agronomist in Kenya, I had visited Langat’s farm to inspect his ongoing variety trial, and had promised to arrange for the supply of seedlings from Kenya’s Coffee Research Institute (CRI) to fill gaps in the trial because some of his seedlings hadn't survived transplanting. The trial on Langat's farm is one of 10 WCR variety trials in Kenya, along with an additional trial at the CRI research station in Ruiru (read more here).
However, the pandemic quickly changed our plans. By early April, the effects of COVID-19 had started to be felt across the coffee value chain, and Kenya’s government leaders instituted tough movement restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Movement of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, agrochemicals, and seedlings to growing areas were disrupted, as was green coffee being transported to market, causing unanticipated delays. Farmer trainers and extension staff from organizations like CRI, as well as other coffee professionals like marketing agents and agricultural input suppliers, could no longer travel to coffee-growing regions, leaving coffee farmers feeling abandoned.
Langat described to me via Skype the impact of these restrictions, saying, “The WCR agronomist used to visit us once or twice a month to guide us on implementing the trials and collecting data. However, due to the travel restrictions, it's now been three months since his last visit. Our only contact is by phone or via WhatsApp.”
As the pandemic’s effects became undeniable, players from across the coffee sector held a virtual meeting via Zoom on May 4, organized by the Kenya Coffee Platform, to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on the coffee sector, and possible mitigations. The meeting attracted about 30 participants drawn from various producer organizations, millers, marketing agents, financial institutions, regulatory bodies, research institutions, and NGOs. Some of the notable negative impacts identified included: disruption of logistics for inputs and coffee exports; unavailability of labor; reduced hours of operation due to curfew; increased coffee theft; and poor access to extension services from service providers. We at World Coffee Research could relate to these concerns; a key challenge we've experienced during the pandemic has been restricted access to coffee-growing areas to oversee trials and collect data.
So how is Kenya’s coffee industry attempting to overcome these challenges related to COVID-19? Those who work with farmers are getting more creative with remote solutions, using not just apps, phone calls, and texts—which farmers report are effective temporary ways of giving and receiving information—but also employing increased use of social media as an extension tool, with more Facebook and WhatsApp groups materializing with a focus on coffee farming, coupled with increased interactions on other platforms.
Additionally, in an effort to keep Kenya’s coffee trade running during the pandemic, various coffee organizations are lobbying the government to guarantee safe passage of vehicles transporting agronomic inputs to the growing areas and coffee beans to the mills/market. The weekly coffee auctions at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, after being halted by the Ministry of Health on March 31 due to COVID-19, are now taking place online.
While it is a relief to many that movement restrictions are easing, the change comes as COVID-19 cases are rising in the country. In order to monitor emergent challenges and strategies, the Kenya Coffee Platform has shifted its one-time Zoom meeting to a monthly virtual forum, helping to identify the impacts of COVID-19 and share mitigation strategies at various levels of the sector. Speaking by phone, Karugu Macharia, chairman of the Kenya Coffee Platform, said, “We are happy with the uptake of virtual monthly meetings with commendable attendance by members from across the value chain.”
Coffee-producing countries around the world have experienced similar impacts from COVID-19 to what we’ve seen in Kenya. And in East Africa beyond Kenya, the farmers and researchers we partner with report comparable challenges and situations, with group gatherings and internal country movement still restricted in Uganda, DRC, and Rwanda.
World Coffee Research continues to reach farmers digitally as the situation stabilizes in the country. Field visits to farmers hosting our trials are scheduled to resume in early August, with strict adherence to government regulations on social distancing. However, some activities, such as the replanting of seedlings to fill gaps in the trials, will have to be postponed until October, when short periods of rainfall are expected.