Impact of climate change on coffee and tea producers in Kenya

The is the first guest blog from Martina Bozzola. Martina has just joined the ITC Trade and Environment team having just completed her PhD in Environmental Economics from the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland – bravo!

Voices From the Field

Farmers in Africa are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Kenya is strongly exposed to changing climatic patterns, and many areas of the country have registered an increase in seasonal mean temperature over the last 50 years, which led to a spread of crops’ pest and diseases. The latest IPCC report, tells us that climate change is affecting weather patterns and seasonal shifts with serious repercussions on Kenyan rural households.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Veronika Warvimu Wangómbe gave me one of the best illustrations of how climate change is affecting farmers in East Africa I had come across so far. Veronika is a Kenyan farmer, who has been working for more than 10 years as a coffee picker in the Nyery Hill Coffee Farm, located in Nyeri District, approximately 300 Km North of the capital Nairobi. The farm lies at an altitude between 1800 and 2200 metres above sea level. The total farm size is approximately 1415 Ha, with about 344 Ha under coffee, mostly traded at the Nairobi Coffee Auction. Veronika is now the proud supervisor of a group of over 20 women picking coffee beans for the farm.


Veronika Warvimu Wangombe supervising coffee picking at Nyery Hill Farm

The Nyery region in Central Kenya, because of its soil quality, produces some of the best Kenyan coffee, which is one of the most important crops in the region.

Increasing climate variability and erratic rainfall

Veronika explains that her main challenge as a supervisor is that it is increasingly difficult to predict seasons, “Until few years ago, we knew when the season for picking the coffee would start and when it would end…it was easier to predict what the harvest would be. In the last 3-4 years rainfall has been more and more erratic. This year the harvest is good, but the past three years has been very unpredictable”.

Erratic rainfall is increasingly putting pressure on the agriculture system of the whole country, which is 70% rainfed. The Nyery Hill Farm is not an exception. I asked Veronika what she thinks of the prospect to adopt irrigation in the farm in the future, she burst into laughter saying “I would love that!”. The farm lies between two permanent rivers namely River Chania and Muringato, and the area is quite abundant in water resources, but neither irrigation nor water storage technology as ever been used. More erratic rainfall is enhancing incentives to improve water resources management in the region.

Warming trends, pests and buyers’ taste

The most grown coffee variety in the region, called SL-28, is threatened by warming trends, which might result in the spread of the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei) in previously colder areas where its presence and damages have been limited to date.

Woman picking

Woman harvesting coffee berries at Nyery Hill Farm

A few years ago, the farm management decided to plant a new coffee variety, the Roiru 11, which is resistant to the coffee berry borer (CBD) and to leaf rust. Unfortunately, buyers at the Nairobi Coffee Auction were not satisfied with the taste of this new variety. Veronika and the other woman workers were also unhappy about the Roiuru 11: its berries were lighter, but the workers’ pay per kilogram harvested remained the same. The value chain pushed towards the adoption of a newer variety, each actor for its own reasons. Lot of research has been done to produce a rust-resistant variety that would also meet the buyers taste. The farm is now slowly adopting Batian clone coffee, which is resistant to coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease. Researchers estimate that the Batian could help to cut production costs by up to 30%. Veronika says that the new variety is not lighter than the traditional one and the berries are not spoiled by the borer. The farm manager tells me that buyers like the taste of this new clone variety. Despite this, its adoption in the region remains low: farmers lack information and would not intercrop to gradually moving to the new variety unless the benefits are shown to them from the successful farms adopting it.

Moving to new coffee varieties is not always the answer to cope with warming trends. Just a couple of days after visiting the coffee farm at Nyery we visited the Kagwe Tea Factory, located at lower altitudes. Walking in front of a pile of uprooted plants while visiting the factory, the factory manager explained us that those were coffee plants previously grown in the region, but climate-related yield losses were too high and coffee plants have been ab-rooted and replaced with new crops, such as tea plantations.

Uprooted coffee plants to be burned for tea production process. The area formerly hosting these plants in now grown with tea

Uprooted coffee plants to be burned for tea production process. The area formerly hosting these plants in now grown with tea

Smallholder Farmers Income Diversification and Food Security

Veronika owns a bit of land, where she grows maize, bananas, a bit of coffee and keeps a cow. She decided to grow different crops on her land because the production is firstly aimed at the household consumption. The remaining production, mostly coffee and milk, is sold. Veronika tells me that several of the woman she supervises do not own a piece of land, thus they have less opportunities to diversify their household diet and income sources.

Woman Empowered

When asked about the relationship between the woman workers, Veronika explains me that whenever the group of farming women want to raise an issue to the management they get together and team up as a group, for example, to confront the management if the pay is late. The relationship with the farm management is very good, the salary is good and health services are provided by a clinic run by the local church, which also owns the farm.

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