Climate change brews a storm for East Africa coffee farmers

A farmer tends her coffee crop in Kirinyaga County. PHOTO | JOSEPH  KANYI
A farmer tends her coffee crop in Kirinyaga County. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI 

East Africa’s coffee output is expected to rise in the short term, but coffee farming may no longer be viable by the end of the century as a result of rising temperatures and increased risk of disease, a new report says.

The report produced by scientists from the Climate Institute says East Africa is particularly at risk of being hit by a devastating outbreak of the Coffee Berry Borer -- a major pest originating in Congo but now spreading to the region as a result of climate change.

Titled ‘‘A Brewing Storm’’ , the report says the pest has already caused crop damage in excess of $500 million annually since 2001.

It was previously confined to crops below 1,500 metres above sea level but has spread up the slope, drawn by hotter, wetter conditions in places like Tanzania and Uganda.

The report gives the example of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro coffee belt where the borer is now found 300 metres higher than where it was 100 years ago.


A warming of 1–2°C, the minimum scientists expect for this century “will see the borer’s numbers explode,” the report says, spreading outwards from the Equator and upwards to higher altitudes.

While most coffee producing countries are expected to lose half of the areas suitable for coffee production by 2050, it may in the short-term favour highlands coffee growing areas of East Africa as well as in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Andes, the report says.

But before the century is out, conditions are set to become inhospitable for Arabica coffee in the wild in East Africa — its centre of origin.

The report says this is important because a 2012 paper by scientists at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens looked specifically at wild Arabica coffee, suggesting that climate change could push it to extinction by 2100. In the Congo basin, where Robusta coffee originated, the wild plant may become locally extinct by 2050, the report said.

“Neither wild Robusta nor Arabica seem capable of weathering even middle-of-the-range climate change scenarios,” according to the scientists, adding that wild coffee plants form a storehouse of genetic resources that could prove vital in the development of new, drought and disease-tolerant Arabica varieties at the very time when coffee farmers need them most.

Coffee is a key global crop and the second most valuable commodity exported by developing countries, whose global market value stood around $19 billion in 2015.

Worldwide, around 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed everyday.

Over 120 million people in more than 70 countries rely on the coffee value chain for their livelihoods.

The worst affected region in the short to medium term in East Africa is likely to be Ethiopia, the report says, as its climate is projected to warm by as much as 3.1°C by 2060 and around 5°C by 2090 under the most likely emissions scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In the short-term moreover, coffee production will undergo dramatic shifts—broadly, away from the Equator and further up mountains.

Production will probably come into conflict with other land uses, including forests.

The report expresses concern at the ability of coffee producing countries to change noting that most of the world’s 25 million coffee farmers are smallholders with little capacity to build greater resilience.