Kenyan Coffee, Gifts from the Owner of Snow

kenyan coffee
Posted in: History
By Mike Ferguson
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Kenyan Coffee, Gifts from the Owner of Snow

Part I - Gifts from the Owner of Snow

Mt. Kenya was a ghost ship on the horizon, its existence only rumored among Europeans for decades. Although it seems likely that the first “outsiders” to put eyes on the mountain would have been Arab traders, who caravanned through the interior for generations, it was a German adventurer/missionary named Johann Krapf who first told the world about it in 1849. Mountain spotting was something of a hobby for Krapf. A year before he had been the “first” to see and report Mt. Kilimanjaro along with fellow missionary Johannes Rebmann.

Possibly equipped with a spyglass on an unusually clear day, Krapf spotted the peaks he would name Mt. Kenya from 100 miles away. Though rare today due to smog, the mountain can still be seen on occasion from Nairobi, 85 miles away. Krapf tried to spot Mt. Kenya again in 1851, travelling 40 miles closer, but the ghost ship did not appear.

For years, locals would assure travelers passing through the region that the mountain was out there, elusive and real, but it remained just a story. By the 1860’s, Kilimanjaro was being actively explored, but Europeans began to doubt Krapf’s account of seeing a second great mountain in Africa. How could such a mountain remain hidden? Finally, in 1883, a second sighting was reported. Joseph Thompson, a Scot, not only spotted the mountain, he attempted to explore it, but the locals basically told him to get off their lawn.

As soon as Europeans knew the mountain was there, they started trying to climb it, because it was there. QED. But climbing Mt. Kenya proved to be as elusive as finding it had been. Explorers did not reach the highest peaks until the turn of the century and it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that every route to every peak had been climbed.

We don’t know who was really the first human to see Mt. Kenya, of course. People have been living in the shadow of the mountain for thousands of years. One tradition holds that Gĩkũyũ, father of the Kikuyu people who have lived on the southwest slopes of the mountain for hundreds of years, was the first person to climb the mountain and speak to God. All of the people who have lived around Mt. Kenya for centuries share the tradition that it is God’s throne or home on earth. The Embu people, who have long lived on the southeastern slopes and always built their homes with the door facing the peaks, call God on the mountain “the owner of snow.”

There are some accounts of coffee being grown in Kenya prior to British colonization, but if true these would have been small garden plantings for home use and trading locally. In the 1922 edition of All About Coffee, William Ukers quotes a British official noting that coffee grows wild in Kenya, so perhaps the wild coffee of Ethiopia had southern cousins.  When Francis Thurber published Coffee, Plantation to Cup in in 1884, Kenyan coffee was not mentioned once. Indeed, the entire production of all of Africa is said by Thurber at that time to be commercially inconsequential.

Coffee cherries within our farms in Kenya.

Just a few hundred miles north of Mt. Kenya, coffee had most certainly been growing wild for as long as anyone could remember, long before anyone figured out how to chew it or brew it. And yet when formal coffee cultivation arrived in Kenya, seeds had to be brought in and planted. The British took control of Kenya in 1895. In 1896 French Catholic missionaries planted coffee in the hills northwest of Mombasa. Scottish Protestant missionaries planted coffee outside Nairobi.

Kenyan coffee thrived in the rich volcanic soil of the Rift Valley and coffee plantings quickly moved north from Nairobi and toward Mt. Kenya. British military veterans were offered 1,000 acres of land for free if they had at least £1,000 in assets. Serious commercial cultivation began in 1900 and by 1914, 6,000 acres were producing coffee. By 1934 this had grown to 102,000 acres. This was three years after Karen Blixens got Out of Africa.

The Kenyan coffee farm of Karen Blixens, A.K.A. Isak Dinesen, A.K.A. Merle Streep, was southwest of Nairobi (where there is now a town named Karen) on land that was not rich volcanic soil, which probably explains why the plantation eventually failed due to poor yields. Blixens’ eighteen years in Kenya, especially the first years when there were relatively few colonists, were perhaps a rare moment in time when her reflections on contrast had more meaning because the balance between the invader and the invaded held some real and sincere (if overly romanticized) mutual dependence.

“A right-hand glove with its contrast the left-hand glove makes a whole, a pair of gloves; but two right-hand gloves you throw away.” -Karen Blixens   

Blixens was viewed with suspicion by other colonists for her admiration of the Kenyan people. She made the observation that while “I should never quite know or understand them, they knew me through and through.” Her empathy excuses nothing but it does remind us that the distance between those who pick coffee and those who roast coffee can be measured in more ways than miles.

Unfortunately, among all the unfortunate things related to colonization, for the first 60 years that coffee was grown commercially in Kenya, only white people were allowed to own coffee farms, leaving Kenyans to perform the labor, and the British plantation owners, exceptions noted, did not grow wealthy by treating their workers well.

Because Kenya had been subjected to practical if not formal occupation by various powers for hundreds of years, the country had never developed a sense of national identity. Communities in the interior were largely defined by tribe and had no sense of national boarders let alone identity. What resistance to the British occurred near the end of the 19th century was always resistance from one tribe of people protecting their land. At the same time, the coast had been an epicenter of international trade for so long, since perhaps the first century, it had evolved into a multi-cultural mix of people and religions from all over the world who had in common only that they wanted to do business … and avoid the interior. So it took years for even non-violent resistance on anything approaching a national level to take shape among the Kenyan people.

The British followed the colonization script and immediately built a railroad, the Uganda Railway, that connected Mombasa to Uganda. When Karen Blixens left her beloved Kenya, she began her journey on the Uganda Railway. This was the railway whose construction was delayed by the man eating lions of Tsavo; but as everyone knows, Val Kilmer killed the lions and the railway was completed in 1903.

While the British coffee farmers and business-minded cosmopolitan coast thrived, Kenyans began slowly to test their voice, organize, and demand their seat at the table. Still, it wasn’t until 1944 that an African was given even a token role in the political process. One of the leaders advocating for Kenyan participation and representation in government was Henry Thuku, one of the first Kenyans to be granted a license to grow coffee, and in 1959 the first African to hold a seat on the board of the Kenya Planters Coffee Union.

As they had in India, the British focused on developing large coffee plantations complete with washing stations. But nearly as soon as they were allowed to grow coffee, the small-holder African coffee farmers began to form cooperatives. Kenya gained formal independence in 1964 and throughout the 1960’s, nearly every issue of The Kenyan Gazette—a monthly newspaper publishing government news and notices—announced the formation of yet another coffee growers cooperative.

For the British plantation owners, growing coffee in Africa was almost something of a lifestyle choice. For the Kenyan people who had done all the work and had all the skills, growing coffee represented a true economic opportunity and the number of people growing coffee exploded. Today, two-thirds of Kenyan coffee land is small-holder farmers. Virtually all Kenyan coffee produced for export is washed.

Mt. Kenya, which remained unknown to outsiders for so long, provides ideal conditions for growing coffee, the right altitudes, weather, access to water, and soil that drains easily; gifts, perhaps, from the owner of snow.

Hand-sorting washed coffee.

Part II Planters and Priests

"In 50 years not more than 3,000 people have been baptized in Kikuyu. Though adjoining the Kikuyu reserve, its influence was nil. Among a people whose daily cry is for more land, the biggest hindrance to the spread of the Gospel was that we were coffee-growers."  -Father Peadar Kelly, writing about St. Austin's mission church in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1953.


The border city of Moyale, split between Ethiopia and Kenya, is 500 miles from Nairobi and yet, coffee seeds had to travel four times that distance to arrive in Kenya from Reunion Island for commercial planting. By the time coffee was successfully cultivated in Kenya, it had been used as a crop in neighboring Ethiopia for more than 1,000 years. From Ethiopia, coffee had spread over the globe for hundreds of years, carried by people, pack animals, wagons, and ships. But when coffee that would flourish arrived in Kenya, just 500 miles south of the birthplace of coffee, it arrived on the most modern of transportation, a train.

It seems likely that coffee grew wild within the region that would become Kenya, buried deep inside impenetrable forests, or perhaps hiding in plain site; but it wasn't until 1895 that missionaries both protestant and catholic attempted to grow coffee for commercial purposes, with seeds from other places and with limited success. The 100 seeds from Reunion Island that would serve as progenitors to the Kenyan coffee industry arrived on a train,  carried by priests belonging to an order known as “Holy Ghost Fathers.” On August 12th, 1899, they arrived at the spot that would quickly become the country's capital city. They arrived at 6:30 pm, to be exact.

When the first passenger locomotive of Uganda Railway, which would soon stretch from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria, arrived just three months before the priests, it didn’t arrive at Nairobi, it simply arrived at “Mile 325,” where the British had built a railway supply camp in 1896 and then a depot, not far from a river named Nairobi.

Naturally processed coffees from our origin operations.

When The Holy Ghost Fathers arrived with a French Bishop on August 12th, the only thing waiting for them was a place to set up their tents. The next day was a Sunday and mass was held inside the train depot, as it would be many times. Four days after arriving, the priests had purchased a small plot of land and Brother Blanchard Dillenseger had planted the 100 coffee seeds. On August 19th, one of the priests reported in his diary that the seeds had begun to germinate. By November 1900, the plants were said to be thriving and 300 new seeds arrived on the train, then 5,000 in 1904.

After arriving in 1899, the Bishop had his heart set on establishing a mission among the Kikuyu people. He set about obtaining support from the railroad to build a house, for starters. Lumber was donated to the effort by an engineer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Patterson, legendary killer the previous year of the man-eating lions of Tsavo, who surely had empathy for an attempt to build anything on the site and wrote about the immense amount of work required in building a railway center at Nairobi "three hundred and twenty seven miles from the nearest place where a nail could be purchased."

The church itself was eventually finished in 1913 and by the time it was completed it was surrounded by coffee trees. This is the church Karen Blixen describes in her book Out of Africa:

"The Fathers had planned and built their Church themselves with the assistance of their African congregation, and they were with reason very proud of it. There was here a fine grey Church with a bell-tower on it; it was laid out on a broad courtyard, above terraces and stairs, in the midst of their coffee-plantation, which was the oldest in the Colony and very skillfully run."

The mission, named St. Austin, and the Holy Ghost Father’s, had become successful coffee planters. As early as 1906 they were not only growing, harvesting, and milling coffee, but roasting, grinding, and packaging coffee too. They sold their roasted coffee in tins under the brand, “French Mission Coffee,” and eventually their coffee was sold in France. Such was their reputation that former president, Theodore Roosevelt, interrupted a year-long hunting expedition to observe coffee production at St. Austin’s in 1909.

The same year the church was finished, a new coffee mill for the church’s coffee plantation was built and contained the most modern “water driven mechanical systems.” In 1915, a new nursery was constructed. In 1917, the Holy Ghost Fathers planted 10,000 coffee trees. The fathers of St. Austin’s had become so successful as coffee farmers, the protestant British colonists around Nairobi, struggling to establish their own coffee plantations, sometimes referred to them as “settlers in disguise.”  When it came to the acquisition of land for coffee growing, the local Kikuyu people had their own saying:  "Gutiri muthungu na mubia,” meaning, "Planter and priest are the same."

The Uganda Railway had been very expensive to build and was not turning a profit on operating costs, let alone chipping away at massive debt (In 2017 dollars, it cost 1.3 million to build one mile of rail and the railway was 660 miles long). The British government decided the best way for the railway to make a profit would be to transport more crops, so they made it as easy as possible for colonists to start farming. But the primary challenge for British settlers trying to establish coffee plantations was labor. In 1907, officials declared that people native to the region, Kenyans, could not be compelled to pick coffee or any crop. This made the settlers very unhappy, so the government increased taxes on Kenyans while providing a variety of subsidies for Europeans growers. Local people went to work on plantations to earn money to pay taxes, because they were restricted from growing cash crops.

 “It stands to reason that the more prosperous and contented is the population of a reserve, the less the need or inclination of the young men of the tribe to go out into the field. From the European farmers' point of view, the ideal reserve is a recruiting-ground for labor, a place from which the able bodied go out to work, returning occasionally to rest and beget the next generation of laborer’s.”.  -M. Aline Buxton, British Settler in Kenya, 1927

Despite the inhuman last sentence above, the injustice was plain to everyone who was not a European farmer (and even some who were ... Mrs. Buxton's husband, Clarence Buxton, would go on to help lead the effort to allow Kenyans to plant coffee). The British business community saw value in expanding the volume of crops by allowing Kenyans to not only farm more cash crops, but receive government assistance.

“There seems little doubt that the Department of Agriculture has in past devoted most of its attention to the improved cultivation in European areas, and that until the last three years, very little indeed was done to encourage native production. There is a feeling among the natives that the resources of the country, which are supported out of the general taxation to which the natives contribute so largely, have been used too exclusively for the development of European areas. Stimulated by the growing wealth of the natives in the adjacent territory of Uganda, the natives have been loud in their demands for services in return for the taxes which they pay. They are backed in some of their demands by the Convention of Associations, the local administrative officers, missionaries, and, to a large extent, the commercial community.” -HMG Report of the East Africa Commission, London 1925

In 1933 the British government began to experiment with allowing Kenyans to farm coffee and organize cooperatives.  It took some time for Kenyans to take advantage of the opportunity because they believed if they started a successful cash crop farm, Europeans would simply take it away. In 1943, the Kisii Coffee Growers Co-operative Society was established in southwestern Kenya, a region designated for Kenyan coffee farming. That organization was a forerunner to The Gusii Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, which is still in operation today with 75,000 farmers. In 1949, all restrictions on coffee farming by Kenyans were removed.

In 1953, as quoted in the beginning of this article, Father Peadar Kelly lamented the small number of conversions to Christianity among the Kikuyu people around Nairobi and echoed the Kikuyu proverb, "Planter and priest are the same." And no doubt, there was truth in the observation in 1953 and 1913 when the church of St. Austin was completed in the middle of a coffee plantation.

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