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Fueled by Coffee : Kenya--A New Aroma of Prosperity

July 09, 1986|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

GITHUNGURI, Kenya — Francis Ngunye has lived on a steep hillside, in a hut of thin, hand-smoothed logs, for half a century, tending enough corn and bananas to feed his family and enough coffee to buy a little fertilizer and insecticide.

But recently a new house of stone blocks, with a shiny tin roof, sprouted beside the hut. It is a house that coffee built. Ngunye's coffee has also bought another small patch of farmland and a modest commercial lot in the city.

Ngunye, 55, is part of an agricultural middle class that is beginning to flourish in Kenya, thanks to coffee. Like growing numbers of others here, he has turned from subsistence farming to cash crops. And many analysts consider their success stories a key to the future economic and political stability of Africa.

'Live More Comfortably'

"Now I am able to live more comfortably than my father," Ngunye said on a recent afternoon.

He paused a moment to consider his fortunes. A double-knit beige cardigan covered his shoulders, stooped from a lifetime of work on this abrupt slope of rich red soil in Kenya's highlands. He farms just two acres of land, a tract barely big enough to live on in rural America, much less make a living on. But he has something Midwest farms do not--740 coffee trees.

"Coffee," Ngunye concluded, "is keeping me happy."

For decades, vast coffee and tea estates owned by Europeans dominated Kenyan agriculture. Baroness Karen von Blixen's 600-acre coffee plantation, described in her book, "Out of Africa," and in the 1985 film based on the book, was typical. Black Africans were prohibited from growing cash crops in Kenya until shortly before independence in 1963.

Dramatic Change

But recently there has been a dramatic change in coffee cultivation. The estates' share of production has been dwarfed by that of the Africans who farm tiny tracts once devoted solely to feeding their families. Now 70% of the coffee crop and 45% of the tea crop come from farms of fewer than 10 acres.

Charles Bolduc of the World Bank office in Nairobi said: "We're dealing with a different level of farmer in Kenya than we've dealt with in other African countries. They need marketing and management talent now. You can't call them subsistence farmers any more."

The heart of Kenya's coffee-growing region is central Kenya, south of the Equator between Nairobi and Mt. Kenya, in cool, thin air a mile above sea level. Some of the old estates still cover gentle hills beside the main roads, shaded by giant broadleaf trees. They form a neat gridwork of pure coffee, often owned by groups of well-to-do Kenyans.

But take a turn off the pavement and the scenery changes. Rutted roads just wide enough for the wooden carts heaped with the red coffee berries meander through lush hills that rise sharply from clear streams.

A patchwork of crops clamor for space on the slope: rows of coffee trees, each standing seven feet high; rows of corn, the mainstay of the rural diet; broadleafed banana trees; a mango tree or two; a tilled plot of vegetables, and a gnarled assortment of wild, flowering bushes.

These are the farms of Kenya's small farmers. Most are less than five acres--very small by American standards. When coffee is brewing in a house, folks here say, the breeze carries the rich aroma across the hillside to neighboring farms.

A Level of Prosperity

These farmers are not wealthy. Most of them still go to market on foot, taking their coffee in wooden carts. A small pickup truck is a much-prized possession. But they are slowly acquiring clothing and silverware, lanterns and linens--household goods that were beyond their reach only a few years ago.

William W. Mburu, 59, retired two years ago as spare parts manager at an automobile shop in the town of Kiambu and began growing coffee. He has 200 producing coffee trees now and 400 trees maturing. Yet the venture has already paid off.

"Coffee bought me this," Mburu said, proudly placing his hand on a royal blue, five-year-old Toyota pickup truck that, like many pickups in rural America, has his name and address lettered on the side.

Government workers still account for much of Kenya's middle class. The country has few factories such as those that gave birth to a blue-collar middle class in Western societies, and in any case factory wages are low. Many of Kenya's shopkeepers, also middle class, are Asians from India and Pakistan.

Middle Class in Zambia

Among other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, only Zambia has an emerging middle class of small farmers growing crops for profit. A few countries have the potential to nurture an agricultural middle class, but so far there are few exceptions to the pattern of subsistence farms owned by the poor and plantation farms owned by the wealthy or the government.

"Kenya still has the big plantations, but it hasn't stopped the middle-class farmer from getting a piece of the action as well," a Western analyst says.

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