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Ukamba now producing top grades of coffee

The establishment of a Sh100 million coffee milling plant in Ukambani has put a smile on the faces of thousands of farmers in the region. Before it was established, coffee growers in Makueni and Machakos counties had to bear the burden of transporting their coffee parchments to millers in Kiambu and Nairobi counties for milling. It was a process that led to the high cost of transport, losses and discouragement to farmers.

The plant has a capacity of milling 1.2 tonnes per hour, which is about 600bags a day. It has reduced transport costs from Sh200 per bag to Sh70 per bag.

Machakos Co-operative Union(MCU) chairman Patrick Katingima says grading has also improved to

top grade such as AA, AB and PB unlike in the past when coffee from the region used to be graded as low as grade C and TT.

Top coffee growing areas in Ukambani are Kangundo, Kathiani, Matungulu and Machakos in Machakos county and Mbooni  and Kaiti in Makueni County. The peak period for delivering coffee is in the months of August and September.

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Coffee Milling: Strict Quality Control Sets Lecom Apart from Other Coffee Millers

Although coffee milling is an unfamiliar process to most coffee farmers it is the key to whether they will become poor or rich from their labor. That is why the Machakos Cooperative Union (MCU) organized its large number of member cooperatives to start the Lower Eastern Coffee Mill (Lecom) so that the farmers could reap maximum benefit from the crop. And today Lecom – which was launched in 2013 – is among the top millers in the country handling nearly 30,000 bags of coffee from its member cooperatives every year.

The weigh bridge where coffee parchments arriving from coffee factories are weighed and issued with a weighbridge ticket.

Pre-cleaner machine where all foreign particles are removed.
Catador machine for blowing dust from pre-cleaner.

Bucket elevator for conveying coffee from pre-cleaner to huller.

“We started low with about 5000 bags in 2013 but the growth has been phenomenal,” says the operations manager Josephat Ngyengya. “In 2014, we milled about 15,000 bags rising to 23,000 in 2015 and 28,000 in 2016. Our target is 30,000 tons per year."

It has been a long process, but the benefits from the mill have made coffee farmers in Machakos and Makueni a happy lot in deed. Before the establishment of the mill, says Ngyengya, most of the coffee from farmers in Ukambani was classed in the C grade by dishonest millers. That meant that farmers were getting only a fraction of what they were supposed to get. And that is not the only problem that was draining farmers’ income. Ngyengya counts many others including inflated transport costs and coffee loss during the husking process where unscrupulous processors undervalued the amount of coffee delivered by the farmer, providing for coffee loss of even up to 30 per cent.

But what is coffee milling and how does it work to enrich or impoverish coffee farmers? Before being exported, parchment coffee is processed in the following manner: Hulling machinery removes the parchment layer from wet processed coffee. Hulling dry processed coffee refers to removing the entire dried husk of the dried cherries.

Machine for polishing.

The mill is actually where coffee is processed. And this “process” is how, one way or another, Coffee the Fruit becomes Coffee the Bean. At the Lecom factory, located in the industrial area of Machakos town, we were taken through the milling process by the Production Manager, Josephat Nzeki. Here’s a rundown on the basic processes.

  1. The process starts when lorries off load sacks of parchment coffee from the factories located around the coffee growing areas. Parchment is coffee whose red skin has been removed. This is done at the coffee factory level. The parchment is weighed at the weigh bridge before it is taken to the parchment store. It is at this point where the expected milling loss is determined through a sample taken from each consignment to check for moisture content, diseased beans and other impurities. A farmer therefore knows in advance what they expect to get out of the milling process.
  2. The milling process begins with the parchment being put into the feeding hopper where the pre-cleaner removes impurities such as stones, metallic objects and papers. Only the coffee and husks go to the huller.

  1. Hulling machinery removes the parchment layer from the coffee. During the hulling, a fan sucks the husks to the husk chamber and the beans go to oscillating screen to separate and return the unhusked coffee back to the huller. Bad beans are also removed.
  2. Polishing is the next step where any silver skin that remains on the beans after hulling is removed by a machine.
  3. The coffee is then graded according to size. Beans are sized by being passed through a series of screens. The larger the bean, the better the quality. This gives the six grades; AA, AB, PB, C, T and E. They are then sorted according to weight by using a gravity separator to separate heavy from light beans. The lighter coffee is removed because it affects the taste, ensuring that only the finest quality coffee beans are exported. The lighter coffee of grades AA, AB, PB and C are put together into a new grade called TT.
  4. Finally, beans are put into standard bags of 60 kilograms and labeled ready for the market.

Coffee tasting procedures

Josephat Ngyengya is the manager of the Lower Eastern coffee Mill (LECOM) and is a specialist in coffee quality control. In fact he is one of the few Kenyans who are Certified Q graders, a unique qualification for purchasing coffee, selecting roast profiles, production and processing methods, understanding coffee origins, and more. “It allows us to communicate objectively about quality throughout the entire coffee supply chain, enabling me to taste and grade coffee for specialist markets,” Ngyengya explains as he takes us through the strict quality control that coffee coming to Lecom goes through.

quality control

Quality control starts when parchment coffee arrives at the weigh bridge where it is given a weighbridge ticket which identifies it throughout the processing and marketing process. The parchment area is next stop from the weigh bridge where Ngyengya will take a sample of some 300 grams from each consignment for mini milling and coffee tasting. The process of mini milling and coffee tasting will reveal all the details

that a buyer needs to make sound purchase decisions. The details also help farmers to know how much care they are giving to their crop and what needs to be done to improve their incomes. “During low seasons, we go out to advice farmers on how to get more from their coffee using this information”, Ngyengya says.

The sample taken will reveal among other things, the moisture content and the expected loss – or coffee recovery percentage. Ngyengya tells us that the ideal moisture content is 11% and is probably a good target for most coffee. At any rate, coffee with moisture content of above 12.5 percent is classified as poor quality, has poor taste and is likely to develop fungi and molds.

Lecom Operations Manager Mr. Josephat Ngyengya explains the quality control process.

On the other hand, over-drying coffee costs money. Not only is weight, and therefore money, lost unnecessarily, but the accompanying loss of color also translates directly into lower liquor quality. When moisture drops below 10%, aroma, acidity and freshness begin to fade away and at 8% or below they have completely disappeared. For these reasons coffee should not have less than 8% moisture content.


According to Ngyengya, the average managed farm should produce approximately the following grades of coffee when passed through coffee grading screens: Coffee grade AA --- 20 percent Coffee grade AB ……60 per cent Coffee grade C…… 15 per cent. When mini milling is complete, a roasting sample is taken from the 300 grams and is roasted, ground and brewed for tasting. Roasting must be at 150 degrees centigrade. “If the temperatures are too cool the coffee spoils”. Tasting will establish acidity, bitterness, sweetness, saltiness and sourness. It also establishes body and off-flavors. Acidity comes from the soil while the others come from the processing methods.

Ngyengya emphasizes the importance of proper records in coffee processing. When a new consignment arrives at Lecom, it is weighed and given a weigh bridge ticket indicating the type of coffee, number of bags, weight and an outturn number all of which are necessary to identify the coffee. When the sample is taken at the parchment area and is mini milled, the consignment is issued with a milling card which contains all the earlier information about the consignment and the findings of the quality control process. “The consignment should always be

identifiable showing the date it arrived at the mill, from which factory, the results of milling process and the coffee tasting process. It is important for farmers to be able to confirm that what they brought in is what they get at the end of the process.

The control process ends with the miller making what is called a milling statement that shows details such as the milling loss and recovery for the marketer. He also makes a catalogue with details of the coffee consignment for the buyer. “It is also important for the buyers to know what they are buying and from where,” says Ngyengya.

The coffee roasting machine