Kenya’s famous coffee industry is being targeted by armed gangs who carry out orchestrated, large-scale heists. Coffee farmers report how some thefts have turned violent, and farmers’ cooperatives have resorted to tightening security to protect their livelihoods. There are suggestions that the so-called ‘coffee cartels’ are protected by influential figures in politics, business and the police.
Kenya is world famous for its coffee. The country’s arabica – popularly known as “Black Gold” – is highly sought after by roasters for blending with other coffees and fetches premium prices at the New York Coffee Exchange, the largest global auction place for the commodity. But this esteemed status has also led to Kenya’s coffee farmers being targeted by large-scale heists, some of which have cost lives and exacted a heavy toll on those relying on coffee farming for their livelihoods.
In 2011, when coffee theft first reached its peak, 10 people were killed in different parts of the country in relation to coffee thefts. In the same year, five people drowned in the Malakisi River while smuggling coffee into Uganda.
In October 2018, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i launched a crackdown against the so-called “coffee cartels”, which resulted in a reduction in the violence and scale of thefts. However, the recent spate of thefts suggests that these cartels are becoming increasingly active again.
The thefts predominantly take place at the factories of rural cooperatives, where collectives of coffee farmers store their produce and it is processed before selling it on to millers for final processing and grinding. Thieves target high-quality, high-value grades.
James Macharia, a coffee farmer in Nyeri, has had his coffee looted from the factory warehouse six times. He remains baffled that no one has ever been prosecuted for these thefts.
Macharia relies entirely on coffee for his income and has never been reimbursed for the stolen coffee (according to another farmer in Nyeri interviewed on this topic, 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 – and so they cannot shield themselves against the robbers).
As a result of the thefts, meeting his family’s basic needs became a struggle and one of his children was forced to drop out of school.
Cooperatives seek protection; gangs adapt
This situation has led some cooperatives and farmers to ramp up security around their crops. Mary Wangari, also from Nyeri, hired a vigilante group of 15 young men to guard her 4ha farm during the harvesting season.
The group patrols the farm in shifts, armed with pangas and rungus (machetes and clubs), for a daily fee of KES300 ($3). Hiram Mwaniki, chair of the Thangaini Cooperative Union, which runs eight factories in Murang’a, reports that their factories were forced to employ 10 guards armed with rungus and pangas. Mwaniki, who once sat on the Coffee Board of Kenya, says cooperatives cannot afford well-armed guards since they receive only 20% of the profits to cover the factories’ expenses.
This, however, puts the guards at a marked disadvantage.
According to Mwaniki, the gangs come in groups of more than 20 people carrying weapons (including guns and machetes) and spotlights to dazzle security guards. The gangs then beat the guards and tie them up before entering the premises.
Mwaniki claims that guards who said they would raise the alarm have been threatened with death. His cooperative has issued a directive to all the guards to immediately raise the alarm if they see any suspicious vehicles in their vicinity, and local police contacts remain on standby.
The gangs, however, have also adapted to bypass new security measures at factories. Festus Maina (not his real name) is a member of a union in Nyeri which was forced to hire armed administration police after a series of thefts in December 2016, 2017 and 2018. (The coffee harvest lasts from November to February, making December a prime month for coffee theft.)
But the armed gangs changed tactics and now target the berries from the farm once they are ready for harvest. This new trend has also emerged in other areas from around 2017.
“You wake up to a clear farm,” said Maina. “However, this is a petty crime carried [out] by locals who sell the beans to private millers for KES10 ($0.10) per kilo, yet ideally, it fetches between KES30 and KES60 ($0.30–$0.60) when it goes through cooperatives.
“This process could, however, take a year. [The thieves] would rather get little but quick money, especially as they need loose cash for busaa [a local brew] or daily errands.”
The robbers, Maina says, are armed with crude weapons, often buying bullets or hiring guns from licensed gun owners and law enforcement officers.
“We cannot refute that gangs might have fake guns, but because this is a rural setting, many have never seen a real gun so they will immediately cooperate with anyone brandishing a gun,” he added. Like other farmers, Maina has never received any compensation for his stolen crop.
Across the border
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. Farmers from Nyeri claimed that they have proof of stolen coffee from across Kenya being sent to Tororo in eastern Uganda to be repackaged before being flown to New York for sale on the global exchange.
According to Macharia, “we believe that our coffee is taken to Tororo before it is mixed with local cheaper blends, making traceability difficult. This will improve the quality of the Ugandan produce, which always lags behind Kenya and Ethiopia.
“In 2016, a road accident in Salgaa in Nakuru saw sacks of parchment coffee [dried but unhulled coffee beans] stolen from Nyeri county spewed on the road. We have enough evidence that it was in transit to Busia border.”
That the coffee was discovered in Nakuru, a region en route to Kampala from Nyeri, supports the suggestion that coffee is shipped to Uganda.
John (not his real name), a middleman involved in smuggling coffee over the Busia border, says 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.
The coffee, he says, is transported using lorries and pickups, although sometimes he is forced to “buy tea” (pay a bribe) for customs officers. Occasionally, the coffee smugglers use school-age children to transport light bags across the border as they are below the age of criminal responsibility and are rarely stopped by immigration officials.
Millers in Uganda are prepared to pay a higher price for quality Kenyan coffee.
“We have ready buyers in eastern Uganda,” John admitted. “On average, we buy a bag at an equivalent of KES5,000 ($50), way above the market price, and hawk it to millers in Uganda.”
The middlemen can buy above the market price because they know their buyers in Uganda will be willing to pay more for the same produce.
Tracing stolen coffee is a difficult task. Recovery of stolen parchment coffee is hard, especially since the thieves transfer the crop to different gunny bags as soon as they are out of the factory premises. Likewise, it becomes impossible to differentiate between stolen and legal berries once they are taken from the farm. John says, “I wouldn’t know how to identify which coffee is genuine as they all look the same.”
There are various reports about who may be supporting the coffee cartels behind the thefts, with suggestions that they may be protected by powerful figures in the political or business world. A report by the Ministry of Internal Security and Provincial Administration in 2011 mentioned two politicians as linked to coffee theft, claiming that one of the councillors had a private miller in his compound.
Murang’a County Commissioner Mohamed Barre claimed in 2019 that factory officials were colluding with thieves to help orchestrate the robberies. Barre says the thefts in Murang’a routinely show robbers being able to break in and load the produce onto lorries with minimal delay. According to Barre, the thieves know exactly when and where the coffee is ready for dispatch and in what part of the factory it is hidden.
Mwaniki of the Thangaini Cooperative Union also accuses cooperative officials of colluding with thieves: “It is not coincidental that the thieves know exactly where the coffee that is ready for transportation is. They must be having inside information and such data and statistics is only kept by leaders from the cooperatives.
“We have had several cases of such heads being charged in the law courts over the coffee thefts, but it normally ends in mentions and the case keeps on getting postponed. Over the years, the courts dismiss it.”
Some farmers suggest that the coffee gangs enjoy police protection.
“The cartels are untouchable,” asserts Mwacharia. “[That is] the main reason why there has never been any sentencing for stealing coffee; yet the penalty for robbery with violence is life imprisonment.”
He wondered how the gangs managed to ferry their loot 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.
Mwaniki claims the amount of coffee stolen could also be higher than reported, as police officers often mislabel the goods once recovered: “Once, some parchment coffee was stolen from a coffee factory. A few kilometres away the lorry was involved in a road accident at Karega and was still loaded with the sacks. However, the police recorded the stolen goods as maize instead of coffee.
“We believe the person behind the theft and the lorry owner must have oiled the police officers’ palms to change this crucial information.”
As long as Kenyan coffee remains in high demand both globally and regionally, criminals will continue to carry out targeted heists in search of quick money.
While this puts a severe financial strain on those who depend on coffee for their livelihood, the assertion – repeatedly made – of collusion between thieves and factory officials, and the alleged protection provided by some rogue state actors, points to a more deeply entrenched system that may prove hard to counter.
This article was published by The Daily Maverick.