Growing Cherry Dollars and Expanding Clean Rivers in Upper Tana, Kenya

Photo: A well-conserved coffee farm in Upper Tana watershed © Nick Hall

John Gathagu – The Nature Conservancy

When coffee-producing countries are mentioned in East Africa, Ethiopia and Uganda come to mind. Ethiopia is a significant coffee producer with an annual yield of about 426,000 tonnes. However, the country has faced constraints to increased production such as lack of capital and extension service support.

Kenya is also known for producing some of the finest high-altitude Arabica coffee in the world. The potential for Kenya’s specialty arabica coffee, which is in high demand, remains underutilized. This demand can be intensified if Kenya can capitalize on local demand, increase market access to international buyers, and work towards sustainable land management.

In the Upper Tana River watershed, the Upper Tana – Nairobi Water Fund (UTNWF) is working with small-holder coffee farmers to adopt sustainable land management on their farms. More than 8,500 farmers affiliated to Rumukia Farmers’ Cooperative Society, have received Rainforest Alliance Certification (RAC) for their coffee — an internationally recognized accreditation awarded to farms, forests, and businesses that meet rigorous environmental and social standards.

With RAC, farmers produce more, access premium coffee markets, and support the UTNWF’s objectives of protecting the watershed through the implementation of soil and water conservation measures. It is a win-win scenario where farmers increase their crop production and improve water quality and quantity downstream. A democratic electoral process enables farmers to pick the most competent marketers for their produce.

Nyeri County Government has put in place plans to set up agro-processing factories that among others aim at processing coffee locally to obtain more value for the produce. Many coffee producers in the country lack support services like capacity building and advice from extension programs that could greatly influence productivity. The UTNWF works with Murang’a and Nyeri counties to provide extension services and farmer education.

Gladys Wangechi, a small-scale farmer in Mukurweini, Nyeri County, is optimising her operations by tending her coffee trees and practicing the best agricultural management practices on her land with advice from award-winning County Extension Officer, Sabina Kiarie. Before she began conserving her land through terracing and planting soil stabilizing crops, Glady’s coffee trees only produced 3 kilogrammes (kgs) of cherry per tree. Now, she can harvest 6-10 kgs annually per tree. “Coffee is gold, I have increased my production and am now able to reinvest my income towards new initiatives like poultry and pig farming”, explains Gladys.

Gladys has learned first-hand that a reduction in soil erosion leads to increased soil fertility and water retention, which in turn leads to higher production and increased revenues. She was awarded Kenya’s top “Women in Agriculture” in 2017 as well as “Best farmer in Upper Tana watershed 2018”, because of her smart approach to sustainable coffee farming.

A scientific study in the watershed led by The Nature Conservancy found that implementing soil and water conservation measures would increase coffee revenues in the watershed by an average of US$ 264 per hectare. This in turn provides secondary benefits such as enabling farmers to appreciate the benefits of sustainable farming and diversify their crop and animal production, leading to increased income and improved livelihoods.

The Rainforest certification coupled with sustainable land management has led to increased coffee yields. According to the manager for Thunguri coffee factory in Nyeri County, Ms. Kariuki, coffee production doubled in the first two years of implementation of sustainable land management in the area.

“Since undergoing the process for RAC with the Upper Tana – Nairobi Water Fund, we’ve noticed a big improvement both in production and quality of the coffee”, said Ms. Kariuki.

Certification, motivates farmers to better conserve their lands and install riparian buffers which prevent soil erosion, keep soil nutrients in their land, and impede sedimentation of water supply and hydropower infrastructures. Farmers in the Upper Tana watershed now have better access to larger consumer markets in Europe and the US for their sustainable produce.

If soil and water conservation methods were not prioritized in the coffee farms, most of the coffee bushes would have been cut down to try planting new crops or rearing animals. Moreover, authorities would be spending even more money to clean water intakes and using more coagulants to purify drinking water.

Agricultural and research institutions have a role to play too. They should not only work to develop new coffee varieties which are resistant to pests and diseases, but also provide farmers with relevant coffee-growing information and training.

This work started by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with Global Environment Facility, International Fund for Agricultural Development, The Coca-Cola Foundation, Pentair, Frigoken Ltd, East Africa Breweries Ltd, International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company, can have greater impact if more organizations offer their support. Over 28,000 farmers are now enlisted in the programme with an ultimate target of reaching 50,000 farmers by 2022.

To learn more about the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund visit:


Photo: Coffee tasters enjoying a cup of coffee at Rumukia coffee dry mill © Roshni Lodhia

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