How climate change threatens African coffee farmers (Deutsche Welle)

| December 7, 2020

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The world has a seemingly insatiable taste for coffee. But rising temperatures, drought, and erratic rainfall are making it harder to grow coffee. Over the last 30 years, climate change has begun to threaten the livelihood of millions of African coffee farmers. Farmers like Mercy Njambi in Kenya have long been worried. She says her current harvest is nothing like it was 10 or 20 years ago. New solutions are being tried, from identifying the best soils for coffee to diversifying the crops that coffee farmers grow to ensure alternative sources of income.

Some savour the taste, others drink it to stay awake. Whatever the reason, the world has a seemingly insatiable taste for coffee. Some 169 million bags of coffee were produced in the 2019/2020 coffee year, according to the International Coffee Organization. But rising temperatures, drought, and erratic rainfall are making it harder to grow coffee. In just 30 years, climate change could destroy half of all coffee growing land, threatening millions of African farmers.

The future of coffee is gloomy. About 60% of wild coffee strains worldwide are in danger of extinction, according to a study by the US journal Science Advances. This includes Arabica, a coffee species that accounts for over half of worldwide coffee production.

Coffee farmers like Mercy Njambi in Kenya have long felt this worrying trend.

She points to the red coffee cherries dotting the plants on her farm in Muranga County in central Kenya. She says, “We used to produce a lot of coffee.… What we are harvesting now is nothing compared to 10, 20, or so years ago.” 

Coffee plants used to thrive in the moderate temperatures and high altitudes of Muranga County. But now, due to rising temperatures and erratic rainfall caused by climate change, the coffee plants are suffering. 

Neighboring coffee farmer Maina Thuku is also worried.

According to the father of two, the droughts last longer, and there are more pests causing damage.

He adds: “People drink coffee all over the world. We ask them to help us because the environment is changing, and soon you might not get to enjoy that cup of coffee.” 

Not only is coffee indigenous to Africa, it is also the region with the most coffee-producing countries.

About 10 million farmers plant coffee across 25 African nations. Ethiopia, where the habit of drinking coffee first developed, along with Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, produce 80% of Africa’s total coffee exports, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. 

From an agricultural standpoint, East Africa is one of the world’s best regions for coffee farming. The highlands have moderate temperatures and enough rainfall to keep the soil fertile.

But climate change is threatening this delicate balance. According to a new study by the World Resources Institute: “Without appropriate measures, experts assume that climate change will reduce coffee growing areas by about 50% worldwide by 2050.” 

This would have serious consequences for Africa, says Hauke Engel from the McKinsey consulting group.

He says: “This number actually hides a much bigger problem. While some other areas may become suitable for coffee farming due to climate change, growers cannot simply get up and move away.” 

To keep small-scale farmers going, coffee buyers should invest in training their coffee suppliers, says Engel. 

One such buyer is Muthoni Schneidewind, the founder of the online shop Chania Coffee, which sells fair trade coffee from Kenya.

Ms. Schneidewind grew up in a family of coffee growers in the heart of Kenya and her father is one of her suppliers. At the moment, she’s focusing on ways to help coffee growers stay in business.

She explains, “My whole village relies on coffee. It is our heritage and we have to preserve it.” She adds that her business has begun training farmers to get the most out of their plants. She says, “We started supplying these coffee farmers with new coffee plants; we were able to test the soil and decide to see where coffee was better suited to grow.” 

Her company also encourages farmers to grow a diverse range of crops such as bananas, macadamias, and others alongside coffee to provide additional sources of income.

Coffee farmers could learn from cocoa farming to save their business from climate change, says senior researcher and cocoa expert Friedel Hütz-Adams at the Südwind Institute for Economy in Bonn, Germany.

Mr. Hütz-Adams says, “Cocoa and coffee are relatively sensitive to changes in climate, and finding strains of coffee resistant to climate change and farming them would help.” 

He warns that, without support from governments and companies, coffee farming in its present form can’t be saved: “Investments are necessary because it takes years for coffee or cocoa plants to bear fruit, and it costs thousands of dollars.” 

For small-scale coffee farmers, who often earn just enough to keep their families fed, these sums of money are impossibly large.

Mr. Hütz-Adams says, “If we want to develop a sustainable coffee growing system, we have to pay prices that allow farmers to make the necessary investments.” 

Without this, coffee production in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia could cease in just a few decades. Farmers like Ms. Schneidewind’s father face losing their way of life and their coffee-growing heritage.

This story was adapted from an article originally written by Silja Fröhlich and published by Deutsche Welle titled, “How climate change threatens African coffee farmers.” To read the full story and watch related videos, go to: