Climate change brews up trouble for coffee

A worker scoops coffee beans at Kiandu factory in Tetu, Nyeri. Shifting weather patterns signal reduced output for Kenya’s coffee and tea growers. Photo/Joseph Kanyi
A worker scoops coffee beans at Kiandu factory in Tetu, Nyeri. Shifting weather patterns signal reduced output for Kenya’s coffee and tea growers. Photo/Joseph Kanyi 

As the world grapples with climate change, Kenya coffee and tea farmers are being forced to wake up to the reality of these new conditions as scientists paint grim prospects for the cash crops.

Scientists warn that this change is permanent and may force growers to drastically change their farming methods, including the type of crops. Experts predict that certain tea and coffee-growing areas will no longer be viable by 2050.

“The central region will become less viable for coffee due to drier weather while the western one will become more suitable due to increased precipitation,” said Patrick Kimari, a researcher with Kimathi University College of technology in Nyeri.

Dr Kuria Thiong’o, a geomatic engineering and geospatial information scientist at the university noted that tea-growing will also be forced towards the higher regions due to drier weather patterns.

But most of these areas are protected forest, which means that tea will slowly be forced out of production, he added.

Inability to quantify the extent of expected changes mainly due to lack of research into the field have shrouded climate change in ambiguity and as a result, no clear-cut mitigation policies have been formulated.

But on the ground, farmers are already experiencing the harsh effects of climate change with a host of new challenges previously not experienced.

Every year it is going from bad to worse. Sometimes the rain is too much and sometimes it comes at a time when it is not anticipated while at other times it is very hot when it should be raining,” said Mr Paul Mugo a tea farmer from Keru in Kiriaini.

The latest example of the grave effects of climate change was the frost that hit most tea- growing areas in the country, causing heavy losses.

“We only used to hear of frost. It has now hit us in a big way,” said Mr Mugo who owns 3,000 tea bushes on his three-quarter- acre farm.

The frost was caused by high temperatures during the day followed by low temperatures during the night, forming a blanket of frost that settled on tea.

In Murang’a and Nyeri, a combination of frost and the dry weather that followed led to a 20 per cent drop in production.

Since no one expected that such a phenomenon would occur as a result of climate change, the losses were heavy despite the availability of simple mitigation measures such as trees which can provide a sink for the frost blanket.

“My field was not affected because I have planted a lot of trees. But in my neighbour’s farm for example, there was no harvest because of the frost and the heat that followed after the frost,” said Mr John Mwaniki from Iriaini in Othaya district.

Jane Nyambura from Ethical Tea Partnership, a non-commercial consortium of tea buyers and packers from Australia, UK and the US noted that the changing weather was expected to lead to new pests and crop diseases.

In conjunction with the Tea Research Foundation, ETP is carrying out research on new clones of tea that are resistant to drought , pests and diseases anticipated from changing weather patterns.

In coffee growing areas, farmers are already facing disease management crisis due to climate change.

“Diseases were previously zoned, and leaf rust was a low altitude disease but it has now moved to middle altitude areas while coffee berry disease is moving to lower altitudes,” said Coffee Board of Kenya Managing Director Loise Njeru in an earlier interview.

Disease management

According to Ms Njeru, the changes are becoming a major challenge for disease management.

Coffee is highly sensitive to seasonal precipitation which coincides with its flowering cycles.

Heavy rains in January, February and early March cause poor flowering since coffee requires periods of low moisture during early stages of flowering.

According to sources from the Coffee Research Foundation, high moisture during these early stages of flowering makes the crop more susceptible to berry disease.

From June to July, the newly- formed beans require moisture for filling. Later in August and September, they need a dry spell for hardening in readiness for ripening and harvesting which starts in October.

Inconsistent weather patterns caused by climate change disrupt this cycle leading to reduced production of up to 20 per cent in certain years.

Despite being the backbone of Kenya’s agriculture- based economy, no serious study has been done on the effects of climate change on both coffee and tea and probable mitigation measures.

Awareness-creation by both coffee and tea authorities has also been minimal as is reflected in the lack of information by farmers at the grassroots.

“Most farmers are seeing the changes but are not thinking about the long-term. I have seen some even cutting down and selling indigenous trees on their land,” said Mr Mugo.

“Farmers are seeing the indications of climate change through reduced rainfall, low yields and drying streams but they don’t know what to do,” said Mbaruku Gachau a tea extension assistant from Chinga in Othaya district.