Climate trouble brewing for Africa’s coffee industry

Kenneth Barigye grows Arabica beans on his coffee plantations on Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano on the Uganda-Kenya border. He also grows it on his lands in the Rwenzori Mountains and in Kisoro in Uganda, a country that last year saw its highest coffee exports in three decades. Business is solid right now, but like many coffee producers in Africa, Barigye believes its days as a maker of the world’s most popular bean are numbered.

“We are seeing yield shocks from adverse weather and exposure to pests and diseases that are having a significant impact on smallholder incomes,” said Barigye, Managing Director of Mountain Harvest African business. “These challenges are further compounded by a lack of access to finance to purchase critical inputs (improved and drought-resistant varieties, irrigation systems, fertilizers and tools), resulting in poor soil nutrition and low coffee quality and productivity.”

Coffee plantations in southern Uganda. (Thomas/Adobe Stock)

Arabica is sold in most coffee shops, including major global chains like Starbucks, Costa, and Seattle Coffee Company. The bean needs high altitudes and cold temperatures to grow, unlike its less popular cousin robusta, a more resilient plant with higher caffeine content. Robusta, which tastes more bitter than Arabica, can grow at much higher temperatures at lower elevations.

In recent years, global coffee consumption has increased rapidly as incomes increase worldwide. But despite the high demand, climate models predict a dramatic drop in crop availability as temperatures rise in the coming years. Africa, the continent where coffee was born, will be no exception and will put its $2.5 billion market at risk.

Africa has the most coffee-producing countries of any continent. Ethiopia is Africa’s top exporter with coffee exports worth around $1.2 billion a year, while Uganda is the second largest at around $594.2 million, according to Statista data. With Cop27, the UN climate conference, taking place in Egypt in November, African leaders must work to secure financial and political commitments if they are to protect the continent’s coffee trade.

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