New urban coffee culture a boon for Kenya producers

MOMBASA, Kenya Fri Feb 12, 2010 9:39am EST

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MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Sitting on low benches on the humid streets of the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenyan men sip hot kahawa chungu, or bitter coffee in Swahili, from miniature ceramic cups.

The concentrated black coffee -- traditionally brewed over a charcoal stove in tall brass kettles reminiscent of the ancient Arabic world -- is a specialty of the Kenyan coast that is preserved for men.

The age-old practice has failed to draw in a younger crowd to carry on the tradition.

"The young people are not taking up this culture," said Swaleh, a tour guide in Mombasa's Old Town which comes alive in the evenings as men pour into the streets for their 5 shilling ($0.06) cup of coffee.

The reverse is, however, happening in major cities up country. Young people are rushing to swanky coffee shops or restaurants and ordering coffee instead of tea, which has traditionally been the preferred drink in the former British colony, despite growing some of the world's best coffee.

"Coffee houses are very trendy and are meeting points for the young and businesspeople to sit and have their discussions," said Philip Gitao, executive director of the regional Eastern African Fine Coffees Association (EAFCA).

"We definitely are seeing a small growth in consumption especially due to the number of coffee houses."

Figures are hard to come by, but the EAFCA estimates that Kenyans consumed only 3,000 tonnes of more than 50,000 tonnes produced here in the 2008/09 season.

Neighboring Ethiopia, Africa's largest producer which is also said to be the birthplace of coffee, drinks up half of its 330,000 tonnes annual production because the population has traditionally enjoyed the brew.

TEA VS COFFEE

Industry players say Kenya's producers are too exposed to the ebb and flow of international prices and want to cultivate a coffee-drinking culture to boost domestic sales.

"When we went through the credit crunch, a lot of industry suffered. Domestic consumption is one of the ways of hedging farmers against the vagaries of international prices," Gitao said.

Kenyans have traditionally favored black tea over coffee, a relic left behind by British colonizers who traded more tea than coffee and introduced tea to push more volumes.

Uganda, another former British colony, has also been unable to push huge domestic sales although it is Africa's second biggest producer of coffee after Ethiopia.

A mere 8,400 tonnes was consumed domestically out of some 198,000 tonnes produced last year, according to the Kampala-based EAFCA. But there too, the new trend of hanging out in modern Starbucks-style coffee shops and sipping gourmet brews is catching on.

"Branding of coffee as the new lifestyle drink is a major player in people converting to drink coffee. Everyone wants to be chic and identify with coffee drinking," said Eric Omondi, retail director for Dormans coffee shops in Kenya.

"Initially when we begun, there was hardly any coffee drinking culture. Over time, people have gotten educated, they know what they want. We have fans who know what to look for in terms of a good cappuccino or a good espresso."

The company opened its first shop in 2003 and has expanded to a chain of 11 outlets. This year, it hopes to push 50 tonnes of roasted coffee per month.

The government too supports the private sector's promotion to drive up the intake of Kenyan beans.

"It is very unfortunate that we can produce a very high premium product and all we can do is export," Kenyan agriculture minister William Ruto told an annual African Fine Coffee Conference in Kenya. "I think we deserve the best as well."

($1=77.15 Kenyan Shilling)

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Casciato)

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