Coffee pest outbreak threatens Kenya's yield


Gitari Ndambiri shows the devastating effect of the thrips insect on his crop in Kiamichiri village in Kirinyaga County. [photo by Munene Kamau, Standard]

Kenya’s coffee output could be adversely affected following an outbreak of thrips in one of the most productive parts of Central Kenya.

Thrips are small insects that feed on many commercial crops, including coffee. A thrips attack, if untamed, can cause immense damage to the coffee tree, significantly reducing coffee bean production.

Farmers in parts of Kirinyaga County are a worried lot following an outbreak of the pest that is now threatening to decimate entire crops amid fears that it could spread to neighbouring Embu, Murang’a and Nyeri counties.

The outbreak has hit all coffee-growing zones in Mwea East and Mwea West sub-counties due to what experts said were prolonged drought conditions under which the pest thrives best.

Gitari Ndambiri from Kiamichiri village, whose 500 coffee trees have been attacked by the pest, said he had not appreciated the magnitude of the attack until recently.

"Towards the end of March, I started noticing some leafs turning grey from underneath, but I did not get bothered since I thought it was due to the prevailing drought," he said.

Mr Ndambiri was, however, alarmed at the onset of the long rains when the trees started shedding off their leaves and their young berries also turned grey.

The attack has since spread to Karucho, Njuki-ini, Karia, Kathata, Kiawaruguru and Mukunduri areas and all coffee-growing zones in Mwea East and Mwea West sub-counties.

The Coffee Research Institute had already warned early this year that the country’s coffee output would be adversely affected by the drought, with a delay in the onset of the long rains having been expected to affect coffee bush flowering.

A significant drop in output of Kenya’s globally acclaimed Arabica coffee would not only reduce farmers' earnings, it would also impact the quality of the popular beverage around the world, considering it  is used by buyers to blend other coffees grown in other parts of the world.

The country’s exports increased 15 per cent in the crop season through September last year to 44,000 metric tonnes, according to industry data, levels that could drop significantly if the thrips attack spreads to other coffee producing regions.

According to John Kimani, an industrial crops scientist, thrips have the capacity to obliterate entire crops if untamed.

Dr Kimani, who heads the Mwea Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation (KARLO) Centre, said farmers needed to spray their crops with the recommended pesticides.

He said coffee yields could drop by up to 5,000 metric tonnes per season unless farmers unless continuous spraying is done.

"There are, however, biological and botanical control measures for the pest, which depends on whether the crops are grown on a large or small scale due to cost factors," he said.