Africa, Environment

Kenya's world-famous java faces potential climate disaster

Highly sought Kenyan coffee takes hit amid climatic changes that jeopardize hundreds of thousands of livelihoods

Andrew Wasike   | 30.09.2021
Kenya's world-famous java faces potential climate disaster

NAIROBI, Kenya

Renowned for its floral aroma and rich flavor, Kenyan coffee may now be at risk as climate change takes its toll on local weather patterns upon which the crop -- and its growers -- rely.

Beginning its global journey from the Horn of Africa country's volcanic highland soils, Kenyan Arabica coffee is exported across the world -- particularly to the US and Europe. However, unusually high temperatures and changing moisture levels have caused some coffee cherries to ripen prematurely, forcing an early harvest that does not bode well for the beans, local growers have told Anadolu Agency.

"Around thirty years ago, our harvest was uniform across all farms. We never used to do this (harvest early). Now, people are constantly on their farms to harvest coffee. The temperature and climate is no longer cool and wet, it is more of cool and dry and wet sometimes, the coffee here is not doing so well as in previous years," said Mercy Makori, a 47-year-old farmer in the leading coffee-producing region of Kisii county.

Many fear that this year's anomalous harvest could be part of a longer-term trend that jeopardizes production of the prized bean and the future of cultivators like Makori, a mother of three who is one of the more-than 700,000 smallholder growers who rely on its export as a steady source of income.

The International Coffee Council (ICC) estimates that the coffee sub-sector earns Kenya an annual average of $230 million in foreign exchange and is ranked as the fourth-most-important export of the country, where agriculture is the backbone of the economy and its efforts of poverty alleviation.

Livelihoods at stake

The climate in Kenyan highlands is normally cool and wet. Coupled with the rich volcanic soils, this has placed the country at the top of the world's high-grade coffee producers.

Besides the small-scale farmers who grow most of the coffee harvest each year, ICC data shows that the sector also provides a living to an even greater amount of people who are indirectly employed in the industry.

On another farm, 52-year-old Terrence Wanjohi from central Kenya said he used coffee farming to pay for his children.

"Coffee was a very productive cash crop. It made a lot of profit but the change in the climate is affecting this. Droughts are longer, there are more diseases among the coffee (crop), and the temperature has changed," he said.

"Soon people might not get to enjoy that cup of coffee they love so much, and our livelihoods are at stake."

Echoing Wanjohi's fears for the future, John Kimani, another coffee cultivator, said the high temperatures came at a time that was "definitely not good for growing coffee."

"I'm once again considering abandoning coffee farming and taking on something else," he lamented.

Worsening climate

Scientists have been warning of even more drastic changes in Kenya's climatic conditions over the coming years.

In a July 2021 report, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) underlined that coffee output depended on "stable climatic and environmental conditions," the absence of which was causing a variety of ills for the crop.

"Rising temperatures are impacting negatively on coffee quality and are triggering, for example, more and new pest and disease incidents. Changes in rainfall patterns are disrupting flowering cycles and erratic rains are impeding maturation of coffee berries affecting quality and quantity," said the international organization based in Colombia.

The report also underlined that climate change was affecting all actors along the coffee supply chain, adding that they would need to cooperate and join efforts to effectively respond to its impact.

If it fails to do so, coffee-drinkers around the world may lose some of the finest java in their cups, with its bright acidity, wonderful sweetness, and black-current flavor and aroma

Even as java drinkers around the globe mark World Coffee day on Oct. 1, they could be at risk of losing some of the finest specimens of the drink that has been sought after for its bright acidity and wonderful sweetness, if humanity fails to cooperate to curb the potentially disastrous effects of climate change.

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