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Situated on the equator on Africa’s east coast, Kenya has been described as “the cradle of humanity”. In the Great Rift Valley palaeontologists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of man’s ancestors. Kenya’s topography is incredibly diverse and very well suited to coffee production, though coffee did not reach the country until relatively late considering its close proximity to the Ethiopia. It is thought coffee was first introduced to Kenya by French missionaries in 1893 who brought Bourbon seeds from Réunion. Large estates were initially responsible for coffee production due to the British colonial rule which established import links with London, though in 1934 the Kenya Coffee Board was established which set up an auction system allowing coffee to be sold internally too.
The development of hybrids during the 1930s brought about the highly successful varietals, SL28 and SL34 – coffees that are now world famous and highly admired for their wonderful complexity in the cup with unrivalled lemony acidity. The country’s best coffees are grown in the Central Highlands on the southern slopes of Mt. Kenya to the north and in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains to the west. Here the coffee is grown on farms with altitudes of up to 1,800 metres above sea level – and this, along with the fertile volcanic soils of the region, is the key to the almost unbelievable flavours that can be found within the cup. The best coffees in Kenya are produced by the cooperatives of which there are around 300 comprised of between half a million to 600,000 smallholder members. About 60% of Kenya’s coffee is produced on cooperatives with estates and plantations making up the balance. Typically a smallholding or ‘shamba’ is comprised of shade-grown coffee, a house, the family cow and a good variety of vegetables and fruit for the use of the family.
Coffee is incredibly important to Kenya and as a result has had a lot of investment into research and development which means it’s smallholder farmers well educated in coffee production. The auction system has been set up in a way that works to reward farmers for quality, though unfortunately corruption in the system can stop some of those premiums getting back to the right people.