Efforts to revive Kenya’s coffee sub-sector are facing a new challenge: Climate change.
As the government tries to revamp the sub-sector by writing off farmers’ debts and exploring new markets, researchers say that most coffee growing zones in central Kenya, particularly Kiambu and Murang’a, are no longer suitable for the crop due to rising temperatures.
Kenya must invest more on modern technologies to develop varieties that can withstand warmer temperatures and focus on irrigation instead of depending on unpredictable rains, Coffee Research Institute director, Dr Elijah Gichuru.
Production in Kenya this year is expected to decline to 40,000 tonnes compared with 47,000 tonnes last year. Last year, coffee farmers in Kenya earned $218.4 million compared to $208.9 million in 2015.
Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda face a similar hurdle as a warmer planet emerges as a threat not only to coffee production but also leads to a decline in quality and an increase in crop diseases.
Ethiopia and Uganda are Africa’s leading producers, accounting for 62 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa coffee production with a combined output of 670 million kilogrammes in 2015.
Tanzania and Kenya account for six and five per cent respectively of the continent’s production with a combined output of 130 million kilogrammes in 2015.
In Ethiopia, where coffee makes up 28 per cent of total exports, a study published in Nature Plants says that rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall could render as much as 60 per cent of the country’s coffee-growing areas unsuitable for cultivation by the end of the century.
In Kenya, where the area under coffee plantation is estimated at 110,000 hectares, the government is implementing various interventions to save the cash crop from the effects of climate change and also increase coffee’s contribution to the economy.
“In Ethiopia 39 to 59 per cent of the area under coffee could experience climatic change, enough to render them unsuitable for coffee farming in the absence of significant interventions or major influencing factors,” states the study.
It adds that for Ethiopia to salvage the vital sub-sector from ruin by climate change, the country which is the undisputed home of Arabica coffee that is the most popular worldwide, must relocate the coffee as well as conserve and reestablish declining forest cover.
These interventions could result in at least a fourfold increase in suitable coffee farming area. Ethiopia boasts about 320,000 hectares under coffee.
In Kenya, where the area under coffee plantation is estimated at 110,000 hectares, the government is implementing various interventions not only to save the cash crop from the effects of climate change but also increase earnings for farmers and coffee’s contribution to the economy.
According to Dr Gichuru, the CRI is conducting research on coffee varieties that can adapt to changing climatic conditions and also resist diseases and pests.
The CRI has developed Batian and Ruiru II varieties that offer farmers hope in terms of increased output and less worry about fungicides as the variety is resistant to coffee berry disease and leaf rust.
“We are promoting varieties that can withstand higher temperatures because we want to ensure Kenyan coffee remains in the international market at much better quality,” he said.
The quality of Kenya’s speciality coffee is opening new frontier markets particularly in the United States where roasters have committed to import 25 per cent more from the country.
Kenya currently exports coffee to over 30 countries, with Germany, the US, Belgium and Canada being the leading markets.
Over the past five years, the Kenyan government has written off over $54 million debts owed by coffee farmers to ease apathy against the crop and renewed farmers’ interest in the cash crop.
The impacts of climate change are already being felt with the Honest Account 2017 report reckoning that Africa is losing a staggering $36.6 billion annually in adopting, mitigating and tackling the rising temperatures, a problem that has been imposed on the continent by richer industrialised and industrialising countries.