The Nation (Nairobi)

18 December 2011

Kenya: Coffee Growers Lose Millions as Thieves Raid Factories

Coffee farmers across the country are losing millions of shillings through theft of the crop from farms and factories.

Cartels are exploiting the sharp rise in prices on the international market to make a killing.

In Central and Eastern, stolen coffee is sold to private millers but in Nyanza and Western, the crop is being smuggled into Uganda in large quantities.

A 50-kg bag sells for as much as Sh24,000 across the border. In scenes reminiscent of the Chepkube days of the 1970s, coffee is being ferried across the border in trucks, pick-ups and even boda boda taxis.

Chepkube is a small trading centre on the Kenya-Uganda border in Bungoma County which was the focal point of coffee smuggling during the 70s boom.

Many smugglers became instant millionaires from the astronomical prices triggered by a drought-induced crop failure in Brazil, the world's largest producer.

Today, farmers claim top businesspeople, security and provincial administration officials have jumped onto the gravy train.

The cartels hire middlemen to buy or steal coffee from farmers. Coffee on farms and in transit from factories to millers is not spared.

Some farmers are now forced to hire extra security or spend sleepless nights at the farms and factories to guard their crop.

But even this has proved futile, as was tragically shown in Bungoma last week. Seven people were killed as farmers tried to foil a robbery at Namang'ofulo factory near Sirisia town.

The chairman of the society, Mr Samuel Malaba, said coffee worth nearly Sh1 million was stolen. Three guards were killed by the armed thieves.

Angered by the deaths, farmers hunted down and killed three people believed to have been part of the gang. (READ: Editorial: Stop coffee berry theft)

An angry crowd

The seventh person was shot dead by police as they protected Bungoma West DC Paul Merinyang' from an angry crowd when he went to the factory eight hours after the theft.

The protesters accused the district security team of laxity. This is not the first time coffee-related deaths are being reported in the county. Earlier this year, five people drowned in the River Malakisi while smuggling coffee into Uganda.

Bungoma police boss Amos Cheboi said they are investigating reports that a district commissioner and senior police officers are involved in the illegal trade.

A farmer, Mr Danston Masafu, said coffee is usually smuggled into Uganda in trucks, pick-ups and motorbikes and asked why police were not intercepting it despite reports.

A boda boda operator at Lwakhakha border point who sought anonymity said ferrying a bag of coffee across the border earns him Sh1,500.

Police, he said, did not stop coffee smugglers as long as they got their share. "We work very closely with the police. It's a huge syndicate. Everyone benefits at the end of the day. Those behind it are rich and well connected," he said.

A farmer who sought anonymity said coffee berries were now being stolen from the farms. "We are living in fear. It is better to uproot the coffee than be tormented day and night," he said.

In Central, farmers blame the government for licensing private millers and allowing them to buy directly, fuelling thefts.

"I've never seen so much theft in my whole life as a coffee farmer," Mzee Peter Maina Gikonyo, 68, of Murang'a's Thangaini Society said as he kept vigil at a factory at night.

Society secretary John Kariuki said four of the eight factories falling under the society had been robbed of coffee worth millions of shillings.

"Night guards are tied up, sometimes beaten or even killed and beans packed in lorries and taken away," said Mr Kariuki.

"We also blame the Coffee Board of Kenya for issuing transport and milling licences without vetting applicants," said farmer Margeret Waithira Mwangi of Kirere village in Kigumo.

The provincial administration and police have been accused of being slow in responding to calls by farmers who witness theft cases.

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