Kenya's coffee wars

The boom in high-grade beans should be bringing rural Africa riches. Instead, it is fuelling a lethal crimewave

In the coffee plantations on the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, farmers have started to sleep in fields to protect their crops. Beyond the Kakamega rainforest, near the border with Uganda, villagers have waged bloody battles with gangs ready to murder to get their hands on coffee cherries. In towns across the country, storage depots have installed closed-circuit television systems and placed armed guards to protect the dried beans.

Kenya's growers, who should be cashing in on a coffee boom as global shortages continue to drive up prices, are instead caught up in a whirlwind of thefts and violence. Organised crime cartels, with alleged links to reputable exporters, are reported to be hiring gangs to raid farms and factories.

Dr Romano Kiome, a senior official at Kenya's agriculture ministry, said the country was facing a crisis, adding: "Thefts that were happening once a month are now happening once a day." The government has responded by forming an elite police unit, increasing patrols and vowing to treat coffee raiders "like any other thugs".

Public anger at the theft epidemic crystallised in December when a botched robbery in western Kenya left 11 people dead and implicated senior members of the provincial administration. Robert Wanyonyi, a local reporter, got a call early on 4 December, telling him several people had been killed at a coffee factory in Namang'ofulo, 90 miles away in Bungoma County, near the border with Uganda. When he arrived, he found five dead bodies and a mob surrounding a badly injured man.

The villagers told him they had come to defend the factory after men with machetes attacked and killed three nightwatchmen. Unable to stop most of the thieves from fleeing on a truck, they caught two of the gang and lynched them. A third robber, who tried to escape on foot, was dragged back to the factory.

As Mr Wanyonyi filmed, the district commissioner, Paul Merinyang, arrived with a detachment of armed police. The alleged thief pointed at Mr Merinyang and said it was he who had sent the gang to raid the factory. Before he could finish what he was saying, he was shot in the head and died.

Chaos erupted as villagers accused Mr Merinyang of being a "thief" and police fired into the crowd. Five people died and scores were injured as a battle raged in fields around the factory. Mr Wanyonyi, who has kept his footage of the killings and made an official statement to police in the capital, Nairobi, has since received death threats.

A local human rights group later identified the three gang members killed at the scene as off duty members of the provincial police. The DC has been suspended and 22 of his officers transferred out of the county. "Why don't they present him (the district commissioner) in court so that I can nail him with the evidence?" asked Mr Wanyonyi.

The toll in Bungoma County has turned a steady trickle of deaths in armed raids around Kenya - one guard was shot through the lungs with an arrow and another was hacked with coffee branches and left to bleed to death in a fermentation tank -  into a front page story in East Africa's biggest economy.

After decades in the doldrums, the industry started 2011 on a wave of optimism, with coffee fetching record prices at the Nairobi auction house. But the year ended with bodies piled up outside coffee mills. "It's all about money," said one industry insider, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. He blamed a few "rogue players" and said it was easy to hire thugs to attack farms and factories when a kilo of coffee could fetch more on the black market than many people earn in a week.

"The coffee that is stolen cannot just go to any market," said Jamleck Kamau, an MP who has spoken out in Kenya's parliament against the alleged cartels. "It can only be getting out through licensed millers or exporters."

High-grade Kenyan coffee is among the most sought-after in the world and the industry employs 150,000 small farmers. But the combination of price instability and a property boom in traditional growing areas has seen production drop by two-thirds from its peak in the 1970s. Thefts over the past six months are estimated to have cost smallholders $38m. For farmers like Sylvan Wanyonyi (not related to reporter Robert Wanyonyi), those losses leave a bitter taste.

"We were only beginning to enjoy the fruits of the coffee boom but thieves are keen to ruin the party for us," he said. "The gangs are vicious and several people have lost their lives trying to defend what they've grown with their own hard work."

He said there was little faith in police or local security chiefs because people suspected they "could be part of the cartels behind the smuggling". Those fears appeared to be confirmed last month when the internal security agency concluded that thefts were being co-ordinated by criminal networks cutting across farming representatives, co-operatives, millers and well-placed public servants.

But in a country whose Deputy Prime Minister and Civil Service chief are to face trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity over their alleged role in a campaign of killing after the last election, there is little optimism that the coffee killers will ever be brought to justice.

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