Bridget Carrington

Bridget Carrington started her career in coffee in 1983 working for ED&F Man, and after 9 years in London, moved to Kenya where she spent 27 years with C Dorman Ltd, a major exporter and roaster in East Africa, finishing as the Managing Director.

Coffee is Kenya’s 3rd largest export in terms of revenue, but acreage has fallen by 35 percent in the past 30 years. Why?

Some of that loss of acreage is a result of urbanization, but area has also been lost to other crops. There has also been some fragmentation of land holdings as land was passed down through the generations and divided between the children in the family.

Some of that shift to other crops was due to the corruption and mismanagement under a previous regime: farmers weren’t being paid for their coffee, and the money was disappearing.  At one point, Kenya had a fantastic coffee research facility that provided extension services to farmers, but the funding dried up and the facility all but disappeared. Mismanagement and corruption led to a disillusionment among farmers and they went into other crops.

However, the main reason for diversification has been poor prices. Some of the big estates have uprooted all their coffee trees and planted pineapples, for example.

There are certain outlying areas where new acreage could be brought under coffee but increasing production in Kenya is pretty much totally reliant on increasing yields – introducing new higher yielding varieties. This is currently happening. There is also a lot of work being done to improve yields through better agricultural practices.

Tanzania is different. The country is huge and new planting is happening, bringing more land under coffee. The same in Rwanda; the planted area is increasing.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that the coffee sector in East Africa is in decline, but apart from Ethiopia and Uganda it’s pretty much stagnant. That is despite a lot of investment and a lot of initiatives to try and boost production.

What are the solutions?

Of the $3 that you might spend on a cup of coffee in a coffee shop maybe one percent goes to the men and women who cultivated the crop. Almost all the value is created after the farm gate. We have to find a way to allow farmers a greater share of the global earnings.

One way might be through the development of local demand. Kenya needs to grow its domestic market, which is very small at the moment. Only Ethiopia and Uganda have a strong domestic market for coffee. Kenya is really a tea drinking area because of its British colonial history, while Ethiopia has more of an Italian influence.

For the coffee farmer, the biggest benefit of stable domestic consumption is the guarantee of an outlet and reduced exposure to global price volatility.

What are the greatest challenges that East Africa faces in terms of coffee?

I would put climate change at the top of the list, particularly if it hampers the ability to improve yields.

Coffee farmers are getting older and this is also a challenge. Young people do not want to be coffee farmers; they prefer to move to the cities.

Meanwhile, urbanisation is also leading to the fall in acreage that we mentioned earlier. There is also the problem of access to finance.  Lack of value addition retention is a problem. Farmers are often price takers, unable to dictate when and at what price they sell their coffee. Very little coffee is sold as roasted coffee – less than 0.5% is exported as a finished roasted and ground product.

But all of these problems are not unique to East Africa. They are global problems.

Government interference is a problem in East Africa. Even now, the Kenyan government is trying to change the rules again. They want to resurrect a central depository payment system. If they do, it will mean that all the money will pass through a central system before being distributed to farmers, whereas under liberalization the farmers have been paid by their marketing agents within two or three weeks.

Compared to most other locally produced crops, coffee production in East Africa is heavily regulated by government. Governments don’t seem to be making any moves to deregulate; on the contrary. Coffee is political in East Africa.

You’ve now retired from Dorman’s; what does the future hold for you now?

I’ve been in the industry for 36 years and it’s been very good to me in terms of personal development, career, remuneration and everything else. I would like now to be able to give a little bit back. I would love for others to benefit from my experience in this wonderful industry, to share the passion and build the same kind of wonderful relationships and friendships.    I cannot imagine a world without some of the coffee professionals I have met along the way.  Once coffee gets into your blood, I don’t think it will ever leave.

Farmers are most in need our help today to ensure a sustainable livelihood, so that is where I would most like to focus. For the past few months I have been working with the ITC – the International Trade Centre – looking at value addition for East Africa’s smallholder coffee farmers. The paper has now been published and I am now working on a project to test some of the report’s recommendations.

For the past ten years, I have been on the board of trustees of CQI – the Coffee Quality Institute – and I am now Vice-Chairperson of it.

Thank you, Bridget for your time and comments!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2020

This is a brief extract of an interview that will be published in my upcoming book Merchants & Roasters – Conversations over Coffee

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