East African Coffee Farmers Face Multiple Challenges

by Willie McGhee, BioClimate   www.brdt.org

Selling coffee is vital to the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in Africa. Growing coffee as a cash crop on small pieces of land in the Horn of Africa is not easy. The growing conditions for coffee farmers in East Africa have become more unpredictable in the last ten years. Erratic and often adverse changes to weather patterns make coffee growing more a lottery than an art. Rains are starting late, delaying crop planting and resulting in late coffee flowering and berry ripening. That means delays for farmers in earning income from their coffee.  Rains are also falling more heavily in intense cloud bursts, causing localised flooding, flattening crops, and knocking coffee cherries off coffee bushes.

Farmers in the mountains of Eastern Hararghe in Ethiopia say they are experiencing rising temperatures and drought, while Kenyan farmers around Mount Kenya are experiencing unseasonably cool temperatures and less sunshine, contributing to falling coffee yields and increasing disease and pests. Farmers believe that their coffee bushes are becoming ‘confused’, which is not a good thing when your family’s livelihood depends heavily on the money you making from your coffee crop.

These are some of the observations that coffee farmers made to a small team from the UK who travelled to Eastern Hararghe in Oromia in Ethiopia, and to Nyeri in Kenya in September.  The purpose of the visit was to gather farmers’ impressions on the effects and impacts of changing climate and weather on small holder coffee farming and to work with the farmers and local groups to identify some simple actions that can help farmers cope better with changes in weather.

The September visit by the UK team started in the uplands of eastern Ethiopia, at the northern end of the Rift Valley, not far from Somalia. These were once lush green hills, with fertile soils and lots of seasonal rain. Now, these hills and valleys are degraded and largely denuded of forests and trees. Soil erosion is serious, and soil fertility is declining. A fast increasing population means an ever growing number of domestic animals. Villages and settlements on the tops and ridges are often a continuous village and the only surviving remnants of forests or scrub are on cliffs and in inaccessible gullies.

Population pressures lie at the heart of the land management challenges facing farmers in Ethiopia and in Kenya. There are too many people trying to make a living on too small areas of land. Agricultural productivity, economic development, human development and standards of education and health have improved very little – certainly not enough to keep pace with the growth in population. The land is almost at point, in Ethiopia at least, where any dramatic change in weather and climate could have a catastrophic impact on the people.  We have all seen the images from Somalia this year.

Large family size is partly a survival mechanism; bigger families mean more insurance for old age because there are more young people to work the land and earn money for the family. This is not new – local people have always favoured big families because of a high incidence of disease and infant mortality. The difference is that in days gone by the land supported them. If you have many sons you need to subdivide your land to give each one a piece, to the point that people are now trying to farm areas of land that in the UK would pass as individual building plots, or big allotments. This is a problem when you are relying on the same piece of land to produce subsistence crops and cash crops such as coffee at the same time.

Coffee is an important money earner on these small bits of land.  In good years when the price of coffee is high you may be able to feed and clothe the family and send children to school, or pay for some basic healthcare. In bad years you may neglect or abandon your coffee and try growing something else.

The something else farmers in Haraghe are trying to grow is khat – a small hardy bush, like a straggly privet bush, whose leaves produce an amphetamine-like narcotic drug that is becoming increasingly popular and is culturally significant in countries such as Yemen. It fetches twice the price of coffee in its weight, it requires little attention, no fertilisers and can be harvested all year round. It is illegal in the US and most of Europe, but not the UK, which has half a million consumers, and a transport hub at Heathrow airport for moving it across the western world. Khat is a great source of cash for farmers but is detrimental to the health of an increasing number of addicts, especially the youth. It is damaging the social fabric of families and rural communities.

In Kenya, the coffee smallholder farmers face similar challenges to those in Ethiopia. Population pressures and the size of smallholdings are comparable, but there are also some important differences. The Nyeri Highlands around Mount Kenya are greener and lusher, with more tree cover and less severe erosion and soil loss. Patterns of settlement are more established than in Ethiopia and people are better organised in many respects, including in coffee (and agricultural) cooperative working. There are more markets for a wider range of agricultural products, better communications and infrastructure, a more widespread culture of enterprise and entrepreneurship. They do not yet experience the acute water shortages that the Ethiopians do in Eastern Haraghe.

Water availability is a very large problem in Ethiopia. Droughts are becoming more frequent and very few farmers have access to irrigation. Soils are so poor that they do not hold water for any length of time. Although water can be a problem in Kenya, in the Nyeri hills there are many small streams and the soils have greater water retention, mostly due to the better vegetation cover. Kenyan farmers have also employed terracing, planted shade trees and created water pits to much a much greater extent and to better effect than in Ethiopia.

Certain agricultural challenges are common to both countries. All farmers need to maintain soil fertility for coffee production, and for other crops. In Kenya they do so by applying large quantities of inorganic fertilisers. In Ethiopia money is scarce and fertilisers are expensive so much less use is made of artificial inputs; rendering their coffee more organic, on aggregate, but their coffee bushes are less productive and their yields lower.

Pests and diseases are a growing problem for all agricultural activities and coffee has its fair share. Shifting weather and climate are bringing new coffee boring insects such as thrips, new fungal infections such as coffee leaf rust infection, and new diseases. And less predictable weather conditions also make it more difficult to spray against these blights. Kenyan coffee farmers in particular spend a large amount of time, money and effort spraying against coffee berry disease (CBD) and pests. It is highly likely that there is widespread misapplication of the wide array of (often inferior) chemicals that have been marketed to coffee farmers. Misapplication of chemical inputs is worse than no application. It compounds pest problems, potentially causes human health problems and certainly causes widespread water pollution.

Much can be done to help farmers help themselves. Farmers can grow more shade trees to protect coffee and other crops against extremes of temperature and weather events. They can plant green manure crops and do mulching to reduce their dependence on artificial fertilisers. They can use terracing, ditches and pits to manage water and maintain soil moisture during dry spells. Like many things in life, we all need to be told repeatedly how to do things and reminded regularly of what we can and should do. It is the same with farmers. A concentrated effort in educating and training farmers could bring about significant improvements in land management and livelihoods. Unfortunately the coffee and agricultural advisors on the ground in Ethiopia are too few, poorly paid, ill equipped and often demotivated. Coffee extension services in Kenya are more active but still spread too thinly.

The problems of land availability and increasing population cannot be addressed piecemeal. Any change would require a radical shift in cultural norms of land subdivision and the provision of considerable employment through national or internationally financed schemes. Such schemes could mimic the Working with Water programme in South Africa which provided employment to rural populations, particularly youth, by engaging them in environmental restoration works.

As if farmers did not have enough problems, the politics of coffee in Kenya and Ethiopia have resulted in skewed and often bizarre domestic coffee markets. Cooperatives have led the way in attempting to get better conditions and prices for their member farmers, but the coffee supply chain is not easy to disentangle or reconstruct. Farmers are members of primary cooperatives. The primary cooperatives in Ethiopia are members of secondary cooperatives, such as the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU), who trade directly with overseas coffee buyers. In Kenya there are no ‘secondary’ cooperatives and the primary farmer’s cooperatives deal with millers and traders (often disguised as millers) whose experience and access to information often gives them the edge over the cooperatives in pricing and negotiations.

Farmers in Kenya do not actually get paid for their coffee crop until after the crop has been sold at auction, which may be six months after they have first delivered their beans to a primary cooperative. So farmers are heavily reliant on credit, charged at high rates of interest, and on the provision of education, health and input credits from their cooperative or local credit unions. And these farmers are part of Fair Trade certified supply chains.

In Ethiopia, most coffee extension services are overseen by the State through tiers of central, regional and local government. The coffee cooperatives rely heavily on state officials to work with farmers. The state controlled Ethiopian Commodity Exchange sets the bench prices for coffee sales and the relationship between the government and the secondary (big) coffee cooperatives is not entirely clear. Political problems require political solutions. While consumers can bring pressure to bear on buyers, roasters and governments it is likely that the current situation will persist until there is a more fundamental change in the political structure of the market.

The main messages to take home:

  • Farmers have a tough enough time without the uncertainties of climate change
  • To solve or alleviate many of the problems that coffee farmers experience will take a range of long-term, well funded, well directed actions
  • Farmers can be trained in agricultural techniques that improve their productivity and livelihoods. Better still, farmers can be trained to train other farmers to do better land and crop husbandry
  • It is unclear where the resources needed to train and reach so many farmers might come from, and whether desperate people living close to the edge, as they are in Ethiopia, are able to act on ideas about ways to do things differently.

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