Kenya’s famous Arabica coffee is also known as ‘Black Gold’. The beans have been in high demand, although their reputation has recently taken a blow after Japan and South Korea banned them for excessive use of chemicals as we wrote about here.
Kenya is used to their beans fetching premium prices at the largest auction for the commodity – The New York Coffee Exchange. However, this status has led to Kenya’s coffee farmers being targeted by ‘coffee cartels’, some of which have cost lives. Some farmers have resorted to seeking protection of their livelihoods.
Coffee theft first reached its peak back in 2011 when 10 people were killed in different parts of Kenya. In the same year, 5 people were drowned in the Malakisi River whilst smuggling coffee into neighbouring country, Uganda.
In October 2018, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i acted upon these violent acts and launched a crackdown against the so-called “coffee cartels”, which saw some success in reducing the cases. However, the recent spate of thefts suggests that these cartels are becoming increasingly active again.
The thefts mostly take place at the factories of rural cooperatives, where collectives of coffee farmers store their produce. The beans are processed before selling it on to millers for final processing and grinding. Thieves target high-quality, high-value graded coffee.
Farmers have reported thefts from warehouses, but are baffled that no one has ever been prosecuted for these crimes.
It is also believed that farmers have never been reimbursed for the stolen coffee, as the cooperatives claim that the coffee cannot be insured.
No company offers a policy in Kenya to cover coffee produce as it is not seen as an economically viable policy, and no regulations govern the industry in relation to insurance.
Thieves are armed with guns, machetes and clubs. As a result of this, farmers seek additional security guards to protect their crops, though cooperatives cannot afford well-armed guards since they receive only 20% of the profits to cover the factories’ expenses.
During the thefts, guards are often beaten and tied up while the thieves usually know where to go and what to take.
The coffee harvest period is from November to February, making December a prime month for coffee theft, but the armed gangs changed tactics in 2017 and started to target the berries from the farm once they are ready for harvest. It’s not always about making the most, but about being able to make quick money.
The robbers may be armed with crude weapons, sometimes buying bullets or hiring guns from licensed gun owners and law enforcement officers. It is believed that sometimes the robbers use fake weapons, knowing that the farmers probably can’t tell the difference.
While some of the Kenyan coffee being shipped over the Ugandan border comes from farmers wanting to access the Ugandan market, other shipments are of stolen berries.
One middleman involved in smuggling coffee over the Busia border, told a reporter that stolen coffee is kept in various warehouses at borders and transported late at night when it is easier to pass through without attracting the attention of customs officials.
He says the coffee is transported using lorries and pickups, sometimes getting them across the border necessitates a bribe to be paid to the customs officers.
Coffee is occasionally smuggled using school-age children to carry light bags across the border as they are below the age of criminal responsibility and are rarely stopped by immigration officials.
It is suspected that ‘coffee cartels’ are backed by powerful figures in the political or business world. In 2011, The Ministry of Internal Security and Provincial Administration reported 2 politicians linked to coffee theft, claiming one of the councillors even had a private miller in his compound.
Some farmers suggest that the coffee gangs enjoy police protection as there has never been any convictions on these crimes, despite the harsh legal penalty for violence and robbery, which can be life imprisonment.
Editors note. I was once robbed in Nairobi and lost a valuable laptop. In order to have a valid insurance claim I needed to file a police report. My experience in the police station was intimidating, and I was required to pay a ‘fee’ before they would sign the form.
Later my driver – John, who was by no means making a lot of money, gave me a gold-plated tie pin, apologised for the event and told me not to think bad of Kenyans. I was so humbled and touched by his gift, which I’ve always kept.
When I think of hard-working coffee farmers, and the people that rob them, I’m reminded of the dichotomy of the country.
It was also questioned how the gangs managed to ferry the stolen goods through the many police roadblocks since transporting coffee in and out of Kenya requires a licence granted by the police and the Kenyan Coffee Board.
The amount of coffee stolen could be higher than the reported number, as police officers have on times, mislabelled the goods once recovered.
As long as Kenyan coffee remains high in demand both globally and regionally, criminals will continue putting farmers livelihoods in jeopardy.