Kenya’s farmers are grubbing up their coffee bushes to plant other crops as low prices and climate change drive small growers to the brink of collapse.
Arabica coffee, the higher-quality variety that Kenya grows, ends up in speciality beverages from Berlin to San Francisco. The plant thrives in moderate temperatures and high altitudes. But rising temperatures are scorching plants, making them susceptible to diseases such as coffee leaf rust.
Farmer Shadrack Wambua Mutisya has been growing coffee up a winding hill southeast of the Kenyan capital for 40 years but he’s replaced most of his bushes with banana, macadamia and avocado trees.
“Now we see diseases that we never saw before,” said Mutisya, 67, his dark brown eyes tinged with the blue of old age.
Average Kenyan temperatures have risen by 0.3 degrees per decade since 1985, according to USAID. More erratic rainfall is reducing quality and yields.
In the 1960s, Kenya averaged one storm day—more than 50 millimeters in 24 hours—per year, said Joseph Kimemia, vice chairman of the African Fine Coffees Association board. In 2017, there were five storm days. That damages fragile roots and throws off the ripening cycle.
“Every year it gets hotter,” he said.
Kenya produces only 0.5 per cent of global coffee but plays an outsize role in the high-quality market, as “the ‘champagne’ region for coffee”, said Matthew Harrison, buyer at speciality coffee sourcing company Trabocca.
“The diminishing volume is very concerning for the speciality coffee world,” he said.
Kenya’s coffee production is tumbling – the US Department of Agriculture forecasts the 2019/20 harvest will hit a 57-year low.
Farmers giving up
Anecdotal evidence shows the number of coffee farmers falling, but there’s no national statistics because there hasn’t been a coffee census in two decades, said the national coffee directorate.
In Mutisya’s home county of Machakos, more than three quarters of the 200,000 farmers active in the 1980s have given up, said county cooperative union head Martin Muliya. Machakos is Kenya’s tenth largest coffee producing county.
Global coffee prices plunged to 2005 lows of 86 cents per pound this year, far below the cost of production in most of the world, especially Kenya, where beans are hand-picked. Prices have recovered to $1.18 per pound – but there’s still a glut.
Largely mechanized mega-producers such as Brazil and Vietnam have grabbed more than half the global market from small-scale speciality producers, US Department of Agriculture data shows.
Cameroonian production is the lowest on record. The El Salvador harvest has fallen by half over a decade, while Ecuador’s output has fallen even more steeply.
Low prices mean farmers won’t invest in planting shade trees, disease-resistant seeds, or new irrigation.
Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi could soon stop growing coffee altogether, said Charles Agwanda, commodities coordinator at the Center for Agriculture and Biosciences International.
“Then it will be a crisis for everyone, including the consumers,” said Agwanda.