Market Reports

The last drop: East Africa’s drought hits coffee farms

East Africa‚Äôs drought hasn‚Äôt escaped the region‚Äôs coffee farmers, who are seeing their crops dry up just as prices reach an all-time high. ','none',' Story by Daniel Howden Photos courtesy Oxfam East Africa The 2011 drought across the Horn of Africa will be remembered for the appalling statistics it generated and the harrowing images left behind. Tens of thousands of famished Somalis walking out the desert to reach refugee camps in northern Kenya. More than 10 million people estimated by the United Nations to be at risk of starvation at the height of the crisis. The bleached carcasses of livestock littering the dried up pastures around Lake Turkana in Kenya and across the Ogaden in Ethiopia. What began with an unusually strong La Nina weather system over the Pacific  (in which the surface of the ocean cools and reduces moisture in the atmosphere) played out as a second consecutive year of failed rains across much of East Africa. As little as one-third of the typical precipitation was witnessed in the usually wet months from March to May. Among the many victims of what has become known as the worst drought in 60 years, the region’s coffee sector has been comparatively ignored by the media.
While aid agencies were sounding alarm bells around Easter, Michael Chege was witnessing his own horror show. The 43-year-old’s coffee plantation in the verdant hills of Kenya’s central province was drying out, with dire consequences as coffee boring insects such as thrips attacked the bushes already damaged by fungal infections like coffee leaf rust. “With the dry spell comes all of the pests and diseases so we’re having a real battle,” says Chege. But the biggest problem was the size of the cherries themselves: “The beans need a lot of water and since we don’t irrigate when the drought came, our coffee was so light.” A medium-scale coffee farmer with 28 acres near Kiambu, about two hours’ drive north of the capital Nairobi, his experience of the impact of the failed rains was typical of what others were living through in the rest of the country. Most of Kenya’s coffee growers rely on rain-fed agriculture, as only the really big estates can afford to irrigate. The changing weather patterns across the country have caught many by surprise. “We’ve thought about irrigation but the unit cost of water is so high that we can’t afford it,” says Chege. The biggest impact at the local Kianjuri co-operative was the virtual disappearance of high grade coffee which had been fetching record prices the previous year. It was a grim picture, he says. Even though there was a tempting US$20 per kilo on offer for AA beans, out of 5000 kilograms, only 100 from the March harvest made the grade. “Previously we’d been getting about 60 per cent AA so obviously our earnings were really badly affected,” says Chege. Over at the Komothai co-op, Nahashon Nyanga was having the same experience, with small cherries and a siege of pests. “The drought slashed our output substantially,” he says. At Nairobi’s Coffee Exchange the drought was immediately obvious in the prices and volumes in the first half of the year. Acting CEO David Murithi says there was a feeling of a lost opportunity for many cheated out of record prices by the weather. “We felt the impact of the drought in terms of lower volumes, but meanwhile we were getting the highest prices in 10 years,” he says.
The auction handled 33,680 tonnes this year compared with 36,197 tonnes in 2009/2010, while the average price rose to $329 per 50-kilogram bag from $237 the previous year. Across the border in Ethiopia, where more than 4 million people are employed in the coffee sector, farmers like Tamnae Pafsa were having it even harder than their Kenyan counterparts. A grower for the last 20 years in the Sidamo district, Pafsa thinks 2011 may have been his last in the business. “This year the long drought killed my plants.  All the leaves fell off and there were no flowers at all,” he says. “And it’s all down to this drought.”
What was left was so useless he ripped out most of it to build a fence. It was a hungry year for the 42-year-old, his wife and four children. Like many of the growers in their region, they’re now thinking of switching to the more drought-resistant khat – a mild narcotic that is legal in much of the Horn of Africa. “A lot are also deciding to produce khat,” says Pafsa. “Whole fields are covered in khat, where coffee once grew. You can also harvest khat about three times a year and it makes a lot more money for the farmer.” Nigussi Bumicha, an accountant at the local coffee co-op in Sidamo, says that the erratic weather was partly to blame for the closure of one of the two pulping mills in the area. “Last year (2010) there was excessive rain, this year there was no rain and an extended drought,” Bumicha says. “The long dry spell killed the immature coffee plants, as well as the flowers on the plant and as a result, coffee is highly reduced in this region.” Coffee for export went down from 100,000 tonnes to 60,000 tonnes. Nearly half the production has translated into a serious threat to half the jobs at the factory, but the co-op is working hard with government help to fight back. “We’re going to cut the coffee crop which is no longer bearing fruit in order to renew the plants,” Bumicha says, as well as introduce disease resistant coffee plants and use by-products from the factory for manure. “It’s high quality, organic coffee that we produce. We can’t use fertiliser.” By July, the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) was warning that the failure of the March – May rains, coming after the similar no-show of late-year rains, would mean a slump in coffee output on the continent from 17.5 million bags in 2010 to 14.4 million bags – the lowest output for four years. The ICO blamed its negative forecast “mainly to the poorer performance in Ethiopia”, Africa’s top coffee producing nation, where rainfall was “late and erratic”.
With Kenya’s biggest foreign currency earnings coming from tea and coffee-dominated agriculture, the Kenyan Shilling began 2011 by plummeting against the dollar. By July, it was the worst performing currency in the world. However, by the end of 2011 the outlines of a different picture began to emerge. At time of print, there were no complete figures for production in 2011, with data only available until October – showing a downward trend in both Kenya and Ethiopia. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that both countries may have escaped the worst case scenario being predicted earlier in the year. Heleanna Georgalis, the head of Moplaco, one of the major exporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, believes that the impact of the drought has been overstated. She observed that while farmers had a hard time in the lower-lying areas like Sidamo, the drought had in fact been worse in the last quarter of 2010. Three months of heavy rains later in the year meant increased production in other highland areas, which would more than compensate for early year losses. “The crop this year is going to be a huge one,” she predicts. “One of the biggest the country has seen, but it will mature a bit late since the rain only stopped recently, so the berries have not had the time to ripen.” Georgalis says the main effect of the drought had been felt in pastoral lands rather and that the highlands where most of the coffee is grown had been comparatively unaffected. Fellow Addis exporter, Hailu Gebrihiwot, agrees with the Moplaco manager’s outlook: “Contrary to earlier reports of reduced production, we now hear that this year’s washed coffee production will be as good as any average year, if not better.” He says that last year’s drought was blamed for the fact that they did not wash coffee at their station in the Sidamo region because there were not enough cherries to pulp. “This year however, we have already bought a couple hundred kilos of cherries in two weeks and expect to continue processing for a couple more months,” Gebrihiwot says. “This is thanks to ample rains in the coffee growing regions.” Provisional figures from the Coffee Board of Kenya showed exports worth around US$310 million for 2011, up from around US$191 million a year earlier. While industry observers wait for the final figures to settle the argument, there is general agreement that more needs to be done to “weather-proof” a sector that provides vital jobs and export earnings in a region that badly needs both if it is to sustain economic growth rates and cut poverty. Kenyan grower Chege says that the issue of climate change is rarely far from the thoughts of his fellow coffee farmers. The UN climate summit at Durban – which would have passed the average Kenyan farmer by in previous years – has been a staple of conversations in Kiambu district and elsewhere in the country. “Most coffee farmers are old school and they don’t understand the climate science but they know something is wrong,” Chege says.
Issues like agro-forestry, deforestation, greenhouse gases and water catchments are slowly becoming better known among the people whose livelihoods are most directly affected by changing weather patterns. “We watch the news from the talks in Durban and there is frustration sometimes that the people talking don’t seem to be the people who see what is happening on the ground,” Chege adds. “We can’t predict the weather anymore. When we were supposed to have rains in March – we didn’t have any. Then, in December when it’s not supposed to rain it pours. There’s no pattern.” Like many growers, though, he has not despaired and a strong dollar has meant improved buying power with his otherwise reduced earnings. “Personally I can’t change the weather but there are things that we can do,” says Chege. He has become a passionate advocate at his Kianjuri co-op for the planting of indigenous trees – particularly a hardwood species known locally as the Muringa tree. He lists the benefits of mixing Muringas with his coffee bushes with well practiced fluency: they provide shade; their leaves make a fertile natural mulch; they’re a haven for productive insects like ladybirds; and help to feed nitrogen to the water table. “We’re doing a little local forestation I guess you would say,” he says. Lidamo Hrbora a small-scale coffee farmer, in the drought-affected Shebedino area in Southern Ethiopia has a similarly can-do mentality. With the help of a UK-based charity Plan International, she has been digging special horizontal trenches to improve water retention and helping other farmers in her area to do likewise. “We have to make the most of the rains we do get,” she says. Together with other smallholders she is trying to construct more than 200 kilometres of trenches. “The soil will be more fertile and the coffee production will go up. This is a long term solution to improve our coffee crops and our lives.” 

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