Coffee is a key foreign exchange earner, but like all agricultural products, it has also been hit by climate change.
To address the problem, research institutions like Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) are working round the clock to develop sustainable and affordable solutions.
Dr Harrison Mugo, a research scientist at Kalro’s Coffee Research Institute (CRI) says one of the promising solutions is new coffee varieties.
Dr Mugo notes that most farmers are growing old coffee varieties which are susceptible to two major diseases: coffee berry and coffee leaf rust.
“In the eight coffee-growing counties — Machakos, Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Nyeri, Murang’a, Kiambu and Kirinyanga, we realised most farmers were growing SL32, SL28 and K7 which are susceptible to the two major coffee diseases. There was need to address that,” says Dr Mugo.
He says following rigorous research in the past couple of years they have come up with varieties which are resistant to coffee berry disease and leaf rust.
The resistant varieties — Ruiru 11 and Batian — are high yielding and as a result farmers will reap more profits from them.
“With the new varieties, a farmer will increase their income by 30 per cent because they do not have to spray pesticides to control the two stubborn diseases,” says Dr Mugo.
He explains that the new technologies were developed through conversion of old coffee varieties into new varieties through grafting or top working.
Farmers will not be required to uproot their old varieties even as they embrace the new disease resistant ones.
“To develop the new crop, we use the old varieties which are still in most farms. Together with farmers we will raise suckers then graft them with scions of the resistant coffee varieties,” Mugo says.
“During grafting, farmers will still be harvesting their coffee as they raise the new suckers till they are ready to produce then remove the old variety suckers. Through this process the old coffee variety is converted into a new coffee variety while on the farm.”
Proper crop nutrition is also key for higher yields.
Engineer David Njogu from the Ministry of Agriculture and who is coordinating Coffee Revitalisation says formulation of new fertiliser has boosted yields.
Coffee farmers from Baragwe factory increased their produce from eight million kilogrammes to 12 million kilogrammes of cherry which he terms as quite significant.
Kalro Director General Dr Eliud Kireger explains how climate change has affected coffee production.
Owing to climate change, Dr Kireger says the traditional coffee producing areas are becoming drier for coffee (Machakos and Tharaka Nithi) and areas which were not producing the crop like Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu, Nandi are warmer and coffee is performing better there.
Global trends are also changing.
“There is a shift in terms of where coffee will be produced in the country. Globally due to climate change, there is possibility that big players like Colombia and Brazil will record a drop in production though demand will remain steady. Kenyan farmers can capitalise on this opportunity,” says Dr Kireger.
To find out how farmers were coping with changing weather patterns, The Smart Harvest visited farmers in various growing regions to get their perspectives.
In Cherangany constituency, Trans Nzoia, 60-year-old Zephaniah Chemweno a retired teacher with a four-acre coffee farm is looking forward to better days. Chemweno says he ventured into this business in 2000 with 2,000 seedlings and has doubled the number of coffee trees.
He adds that due to high cost of maize production, he intends to increase the area under coffee to six acres and plant up to 6,000 trees.
“Maize prices have been dropping and due to poor weather maize would rot in the farms. That is why I turned to coffee farming as my retirement plan,” he says.
In 2021, he made a profit of Sh176,000 from five acre of maize while four acres of coffee earned him Sh700,000. That is why he plans to go big with coffee value addition.
He has introduced his 23-year-old son, Victor Murei to the business. Chemwemo says Murei is doing coffee business the digital way. Murei says he ventured into coffee farming in 2019 after he was motivated by the sales his father made.
Murei gets seeds from CRI and they propagate them for 6 – 12 months before transplanting them on the farm. The first harvest is done after 18 months.
Murei adds that after pulping, they ferment the seeds for 24 hours then they are soaked in water to improve the quality. They are then dried to have a moisture content of 10.5 – 11 and stored.
He says for two months, the berries are taken to the millers. As farmers, they request for 10 per cent of their produce which they roast, grind, package and sell.
“Through value addition, I have come up with two strong brands that are in the market. By embracing value addition, I make more profit compared to what my father used to make years ago. Online marketing has boosted my business,” says Murei.
Chemwemo cites the market, weather, pests and diseases as the biggest headache for coffee farmers.
The venture is also capital intensive and he estimates that one needs between Sh130,000 and 150,000 to establish the business.
Kilometres away is Mary Wairimu, who ventured into coffee business in 2011 with Batian and Ruiri 11 varieties
She says since 2011, she hasn’t changed much of her crop cycle. She has two acres under coffee.
“The challenge we have is that our coffee is milled far from here. We are urging the county government to set up a factorynear us,” says Wairimu.
Nearby, The Smart Harvest team meets Berveline Birira, a youthful coffee farmer.
She says more young farmers are embracing coffee farming because they have seen its potential.
Birira says that with coffee being a tree unlike maize which is a seasonal crop, they have spotted unique opportunities.
She says young people like her are doing nursery management and earning from it.
“I have more than 20,000 coffee seedlings which are booked due to the high demand from upcoming coffee farmers. We also have a group of women who are doing the same,” she says.
“The big challenge that we face is access to sufficient water and polythene papers used in this business. Though many young people complain that they have no land, I got a piece from my father which I manage.”
Like the rest of the farmers, she agrees that climate change is a big issue, and harsh weather has seen her lose volumes of crop.
But on pest management, Birira says coffee does not need a lot of chemicals. She uses biological methods to control pests and diseases.
To support farmers overcome the challenges they are facing, county governments and NGOs have stepped in .
In Trans Nzoia, the county administration has set up various measures to help coffee farmers.
Trans Nzoia Executive Member of agriculture Mary Nzomo says they have taken steps to increase area under coffee.
They have increased acreage from 2,000 to 2,800 hectares of land and plan to expand to 5,000 hectares.
They also ensure that farmers are planting tree varieties which are hardy and can withstand the harsh effects of climate change.
Nzomo says county also plans to set up a coffee milling factory so that farmers do not have to travel far to mill their beans.
She admits that coffee was once a lucrative crop but owing to many challenges including low yields and poor prices, many farmers abandoned it.
To reverse that trend, she says the county government has done audit of coffee cooperatives and now they are working to strengthen them in a bid to restore confidence of farmers.
With huge tracks of land, Nzomo sees the North Rift being a giant producer of coffee in future as prices are getting good year after year.
On marketing, Nzomo says they have locked out brokers by ensuring that farmers can sell their produce directly to processors.
Muho Kamau, project officer with Solidaridad, an organisation that works with small holder farmers says coffee is still a lucrative agribusiness.
“In Trans Nzoia, we are focusing on reviving coffee farming by increasing productivity per coffee tree. We want to see coffee production going up by giving farmers a strong reason to grow more coffee,” says Kamau.