Process: Washed and sundried.
Blackcurrant, jasmine, honey & strawberry.
Grown: Thiriku, Nyeri County
Varietals: SL34, SL28
This coffee was produced by numerous smallholder farmers, all of whom are members of the Thiriku Coffee Growers Cooperative Society, located in Nyeri County in Central Kenya between the slopes of Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare range. Previously part of the larger Tetu Cooperative (which runs 28 wet mills across the vast Tetu region), Thiriku decided to go their own way in 2000 and have since gone from strength to strength.
The cooperative is managed by a democratically elected board of 9 members, each of whom serve as a representative of a community where the cooperative has members. Additionally, the Cooperative provides employment for 9 permanent members of staff, headed by the Secretary Manager, Peter Wangara, who oversees the day-to-day running of the Coop under the board’s supervision. Lydia, the bookkeeper, has been with the group since 2010 and oversees the majority of the cooperative’s administrative needs, and Joseph Chowa, the washing station manager, has been at his post since 2014. This stability in staffing and excellent administration is one of the cooperative’s great strengths and has enabled it to make a real name for itself in the world of speciality coffee despite its relatively small area of influence.
The cooperative owns a single wet mill which serves six communities and 2,504 smallholder farmers from the surrounding area, 2,104 of whom are active members. Sitting at nearly 1,900 metres, the wet mill is one of the regions highest and in many ways benefits greatly from the cool temperatures that characterise this high altitude. Not only do cherries in the surrounding area ripen slowly, the low temperatures contribute to longer fermentation and slower drying times, which when well-managed (as in this case) can lead to a better cup.
Another advantage is the community spirit underlying the cooperative’s activities. According to Peter, Thiriku has “increased quality together” rather than as individual farmers. The next goal is to increase productivity and to receive 3 million kg of cherry in a single season! Right now the cooperative is at roughly 1.1 million received per main harvest. Once they reach their goal, they plan to renovate some of their pulping infrastructure and make other improvements.
In addition to the wide-spread SL28 and SL34 the cooperative has additionally established small experimental plantings of the resistant variety, Batian, but they don’t plan to introduce this widely until they can assess cup quality – most likely in the coming two years.
Coffee farming in this region goes back to the 1950s, but many members of the Cooperative rely on additional economic and agricultural activities for their livelihoods. In addition to producing coffee, most farmers in the area also produce macadamia, avocados, maize and dairy for sale at local markets and for their own tables.
Farmers selectively handpick the ripest, reddest cherries, which are then either delivered directly to the cooperative’s wet mill or received at one of 4 collection points and then ferried over on the same day. Cherries are stringently hand sorted prior to pulping, with damaged and under ripe cherries being separated out from the red, ripe lots (the process is overseen by the ‘cherry clerks’ who are specifically tasked with overseeing and keeping records for payments). After pulping, the coffee is put through a demucilager (rather than traditional soaking) where it is washed using clean, fresh river water to remove all traces of mucilage before being delivered to dry on raised beds for between 9 to 15 days. While drying, the parchment is repeatedly moved and sorted to remove any damaged or discoloured beans.
Some of the issues that farmers face are low production due to loss due to pests and diseases and the relatively high cost of inputs compared to income from coffee. Although the output of the mill for 2015/16 was 1.1 million metric tonnes, the cooperative was unable to reach their goal of 1.5 million mt. This is in part to drops in productivity (though to be sure, with some farmers producing 20 kg per tree, the group has higher than average yields, due primarily to good leadership and education). Many cannot afford to plant disease resistant varieties and face being priced out of the market as their yields diminish. The cooperative has undertaken actions to increase yields and improve their member’s livelihoods and are currently looking for programs aimed at improving the participation of young people and women in coffee.