Kiambu county sits adjacent to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, and is a coffee powerhouse. Along with an extensive community of coffee mills, exporter warehouses, quality labs, and the Kenya Coffee College and Coffee Research Institute (near Ruiru Town, after which the disease-resistant hybrid “Ruiru-11” is named), Kiambu is also home to many of Kenya’s largest and oldest coffee estates.
Mchana is a particularly well-connected large estate. Owned by Kofinaf Co., LTD, a local conglomerate in Kiambu county that also operates an historic dry mill, Mchana is almost 460 hectares of row-planted coffee and carefully managed shade canopy. It is the largest single coffee plantation in the country of Kenya. Mchana was originally owned by a French company who acquired the property after World War II in search of agricultural investments. For many years it has been locally owned and managed, and includes an extensive network of processing infrastructure and services for its enormous labor force.
At Mchana each stage of harvest and post-harvest processing is carried out by a specialized team. Natural processing is still an extreme rarity in Kenya, usually only reserved for the lowest quality pickings. At Mchana Estate however, a small number of day lots are designated each harvest for specialty natural processing, where fresh-picked cherry is hand sorted for imperfections and then taken directly to raised beds to dry in the sun. As is common among cooperatives and estates throughout Kenya doing washed processing, fully dried cherry in this case is conditioned in bulk for multiple weeks in large containers prior to dry milling, to allow the newly dried coffee time to distribute its internal moisture and stabilize its quality for the upcoming exportation. This particular lot comes from Mchana’s “fly crop”, a smaller secondary harvest common in many equatorial coffee producing countries that follows a secondary rainy season. Fly crop Kenyas are not as large or sought-after as the main harvest, but nonetheless can yield exquisite tasting coffee.
The estate provides free medical treatment and day care for all employees and their children, as well as a local school attended by many in the larger Ruiru community. There is also a social hall where workers often host events and entertainment. As a local coffee resource, Mchana provides seedlings to local farmers from its on-site nursery, as well as livestock feed harvested from the non-coffee blocs on the property.
It’s hard to convey the contrast between an estate of this size and Kenya’s average coffee farm, which is often 200 individual trees or less, with no processing or storage capacity. Estates such as Mchana were established during British colonialism, before indigenous Kenyans were allowed to produce coffee themselves, instead forced to work for free for the British state. As coffee estates have changed hands in the decades since Kenya’s independence, management structures have also changed, now frequently owned by groups of shareholders, or, like in Mchana’s case, by local corporations.
Many of Kenya’s large estates are preserved in Kiambu county, a rapidly urbanizing region thanks to its proximity to Nairobi. So, the persistence of properties like these makes them even more unique in the changing landscape over time. Ruiru Town is Kenya’s 6th largest urban municipality and if development continues the way it has, many expect a majority-urban county in just a few years. Yet the large estate system persists, and in many cases reflects both Kenya’s colonial origins and its current identity as a self-actualized producer of some of the world’s most obsessed-over profiles.