Coffee, tea farmers in East Africa face tough year as yields decline

Wednesday January 25 2017

Farmers pick fresh tea leaves at a plantation in Kericho, Kenya. Depressed rains across the East African region are expected to affect tea and coffee production. PHOTO | FILE |

Coffee and tea farmers across East Africa face a bleak future, amid a biting drought that is expected to take its toll of the cash crops and reverse the gains from 2016.

Growers say the drought induced by the La Niña weather phenomenon leading into the last quarter of last year delayed the flowering of coffee bushes.

Depressed short rains in Kenya will significantly impact production, according to the National Drought Management Authority’s Early Warning Bulletin for December 2016.

“The late start and early end to the rainy season mean that yields are likely to be poor,” says the report.

Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Authority (AFFA) interim head of Coffee Directorate Grenville Melli said that the Kenyan government was assessing the situation in tea and coffee growing regions in order to determine the actual impact.

“We expect production to decline and we have sent field officers to assess the actual effects of the drought,” he told The EastAfrican. 


Last year, coffee production in Kenya stood at 47,000 tonnes, up from 45,000 tonnes in 2015, according to AFFA. Farmers made $218.4 million compared with $208.9 million the previous year.

This year, stakeholders project production to decline to between 40,000 tonnes and 43,000 tonnes.

In Burundi, data from the Coffee Regulatory Authority (Arfic) shows that production declined from 18,000 tonnes in 2015 to 12,000 tonnes last year.

“We have experienced a sharp decrease in coffee production since last year and the main reason being the prolonged dry season,” said Marius Bucumi, technical director at Arfic.

Last year, Burundi earned $33 million from 11,000 tonnes of coffee exports, against $36 million the previous year. Only 8 per cent of coffee produced in the country is sold within East Africa. The rest is exported to Europe, Asia and the US. The government is counting on modern farming techniques to tackle climate change and sustain production.

Besides drought, the farmers also face rising costs of labour and inputs, infestation by pests and diseases, competition from other land use and poor governance of marketing co-operatives.

In Rwanda, latest export data from the National Agricultural Export Board show that coffee earnings dipped to $46.8 million in the first 10 months of 2016, from $49.4 million last year. Rwanda’s target is to earn $70 million from coffee exports by increasing production and quality in 2017.

In Kenya, the rising demand for its coffee, particularly in the US, coupled with a weakening shilling could save farmers from major losses. The Kenyan shilling has started the year on a depreciating note, falling to Ksh104 to the dollar from an average of Ksh98 last year.

“Kenya remains a highly prized source of quality mild Arabica coffee for blending and specialty markets,” notes the the US Department of Agriculture in its annual Kenya Coffee Report.

Currently, Germany is the biggest export destination for Kenyan coffee accounting for 20 per cent of the market in 2015, followed by the US at 17 per cent and Belgium at 10 per cent.

The tea sub-sector is also expected to experience a turbulent year in which the government anticipates near flat in production and falling prices precipitated by a global increase in output.

Last year, Kenya’s tea production recorded a significant rise to 426,000 tonnes from 352,000 tonnes in 2015. Farmers affiliated to the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) thus earned bonuses worth $797.7 million. This marked the second year of improved earnings, helped by a stable exchange rate and high prices for the commodity in the world market.

However, this positive growth could be obliterated this year due to the effects of drought, with production expected to decline by as much as 30 per cent.

“Although tea prices have improved at the Mombasa auction, production at the farms has fallen due to changes in climate,” said KTDA chairman Peter Kanyago.

Data from the East African Tea Traders Association shows that prices of tea at the Mombasa auction rose this past week to $2.5 (Ksh250) per kilogramme, from $2.4 (Ksh240) recorded the previous week.

In Rwanda, revenue from tea, the second largest export crop after coffee dropped to $52.7 million last year, from significantly down from $62.2 million in 2015, as quantities produced remained flat while the quality of green leaf was low. Tea growing areas experienced low rains from June-August. Low prices also contributed to the fall in revenue. Tea sold for an average $2.53 per kg in 2016, compared with 2.90 per kg in 2015.

Rwanda plans to increase the area under tea to 38,000 hectares from 25,308 hectare currently, and the average yields to nine tonnes per hectare for fresh leaves from 6.7 metric tonnes. There are also plans to increase the quantity of fertilisers used.

By Njiraini Muchira, Havyarimana Moses and Kabona Esiara