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Letters

LETTERS: Can intercropping revive ailing coffee sector?

A farmer tends his coffee crop
A farmer tends his coffee crop at Kienjaini Village in Nyeri County. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI 

Kenya is struggling to revive its ailing coffee sub-sector, which has registered a 66 percent drop in production in the past 20 years. Recently a prioritisation of key value chains by Tegemeo Institute placed coffee among top three priority crops for the Ministry of Agriculture funding. This indicates the commitment to revamp the once lucrative sector.

Currently, 95 percent of Kenya’s coffee farms grow coffee as a monocrop. But based on recent proposals, more farmers may decide to intercrop with macadamia trees. In recent decades, the negative effects of coffee monocropping have become familiar to specialists.

These effects include soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and high production costs associated with the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Intercropping is a successful alternative to revival of ailing coffee sector in Kenya. This is “perfect marriage” of intercropping coffee trees with macadamia trees, the latter providing an ideal amount of shade, improved soil nutrients and an additional revenue-bearing cash crop.

Such a perfect match will provide the right amount of shade. It would ideally also produce a second cash crop on the same piece of land.

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In this regard it is the high time researchers at KARLO undertake scientific research to prove the optimal benefits of intercropping coffee and macadamia as two revenue streams at farm-level.

Such research should tackle three primary questions: How would the macadamia trees affect the performance of the coffee plants? What would be the optimal intercropping tree numbers? And would farmers be able to profit more on one acre from this combination as opposed to the current coffee mono-cropping?

In real terms this combination would provide much need patience for struggling coffee business as extra income from macadamia would supplement coffee earnings.

The benefits are enormous as macadamia trees with proper canopy management can provide adequate shade cover as well as economic benefit that can be 100 percent higher than coffee alone. Furthermore, intercropping enables farmers to harvest two crops instead of one, significantly enhancing their commercial performance and helping them survive the adverse conditions caused by price drops.

But the perks don't stop there. Intercropping also improves soil fertility. This means farmers can produce more crops with less fertilizers and pesticides. Plus shaded coffee plantations can reduce water use and help decrease the greenhouse effect. With a marriage this good, Kenya, which is the world's third largest producer and exporter of macadamia, may also become the largest producer of coffee with this pairing.

In an experiment done in Brazil, the two crops were planted at the same time, coffee plants in rows 3.5 m apart and with 70 cm between plants, and macadamia trees in rows 10.5 m apart and with 4.9 m between trees, interspersed so that each row of macadamia with coffee was separated from the next by two rows of coffee.

The results of this intercropping helped improve coffee quality further, adding specific tones to flavor and aroma due to proximity with macadamia and predicated a case for sustainability and yield. Shade-grown coffee is also known to produce better-quality beans, since they ripen more slowly and more completely.

The experiment, conducted by Department of Crop Science at São Paulo State University and São Paulo Agency of Agribusiness Technology, Brazil in 2014, showed that intercropping increased Arabica coffee output by 10 percent without irrigation, i.e., when watered only by rainfall.

Drip irrigation enhanced growth in intercropped plantations, raising coffee and macadamia yields by 60percent and 133 percent, respectively. The highest profitability on a typical hectare can thus be achieved by intercropping of macadamia with Arabica coffee.

Charles K. Muigai, CEO, Nut Processors Association of Kenya

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