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.”
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.
Don’t smell the coffee
A January study predicts that climate change will dramatically reduce the suitability of coffee in most regions by 2050, including Africa. Compared to cashews and avocados, coffee turned out to be the most vulnerable crop to climate change. West African coffee is likely to be particularly hard hit.
Another 2019 study found that 60% of wild coffee species are at risk of extinction due to global warming and deforestation, as well as diseases and pests.
“Coffee is very sensitive to even small increases in temperature, and the effects can vary by harvest stage,” says Professor Michael Hoffman, executive director emeritus at the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions African business. “A little warming at the wrong time can affect yield, aroma and flavor.”
Temperature and precipitation affect yield and soil acidity. In some regions, steep slopes and unfavorable soil conditions can be limiting factors. In addition, pests and diseases – such as stem rust – can also thrive in warmer temperatures.
Floods and droughts—events that climate models predict will occur more frequently—can also stunt growth. Too much rain can cause mold and disrupt the harvest, too little rain means that the drupe – the coffee fruit – doesn’t grow as well.
fears for the future
Coffee cultivation was introduced to Asia and America by European colonialism.
“The lion’s share of coffee traded today is produced in these regions. However, the wealth of genetic diversity is still concentrated in the coffee’s ancestral homeland of modern-day Ethiopia and South Sudan,” says Melissa Wilson Becerril, Impact Manager of Cooperative Coffees African business. Maintaining the genetic diversity of the crop will be key to sustaining a dynamic coffee market.
Hoffman believes rising global temperatures will spell trouble for African coffee farmers. “The challenges facing coffee farmers in Africa will only get worse as the impacts of climate change increase,” he says. “Some scientists predict that the suitable area for coffee cultivation in Africa could be reduced by 50% by mid-century.”
In fact, many scientists factor in a temperature increase of 4°C over pre-industrial levels in their climate models, 2.5°C above the 2015 Paris Agreement target. Under a +4°C scenario, Bariyige says, it will be for many Arabica Growing areas too hot.
Coffee quantity and quality will be affected. The commonly accepted definition of specialty coffee is a brew that scores 80 or more on the Q-scale. Coffee ratings between 80-84.99 are rated “very good”, while coffee between 85 and 89.99 are rated “excellent”. Batches with a score of 90 to 100 are rated as “excellent”.
“Beyond growth, the current course of climate change is having an additional impact on our business,” says Bariyige. “As a specialty coffee exporter, I need the right conditions to produce a coffee cup that scores over 84 points. These conditions include slow cherry growth to maximize sugar uptake and slow drying. As the weather gets hotter, we will see rapid growth affecting both sugar absorption and cherry size. Hot weather also means faster drying, which negatively affects the quality of the cup.”
Daniel Habamungu Chinyabuguma, chief executive of the Muungano agricultural cooperative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says his coffee farmers are seeing increasingly unpredictable weather patterns ravaging his business.
“If it rains a lot there will be erosion which in turn will carry away the different fields and the hail will also damage the stonecrops and we will lose the yield,” says Chinyabuguma African business. “If the sun is overpowering, there will be a lot of evaporation and the nutrient reserves will be depleted and the coffee trees will bloom, but they won’t even be able to feed the drupes, so yields will automatically be affected.”
Because Arabica grows on mountain slopes, heavy rainfall combined with deforestation and soil erosion make coffee farms vulnerable to landslides.
Although most coffee farmers will find global warming a challenge, climate change will open up opportunities for other African countries to produce more coffee than before. The January study predicts that some areas in East Africa and parts of Southern Africa will benefit from rising low temperatures in the coldest month.
Denis Murphy, Professor Emeritus of Biotechnology, University of South Wales African business that “a 500 km wide band from South Sudan to Ivory Coast” could benefit, “but this is uncertain and we need to examine real data of precipitation patterns to refine the predictions”.
“Geopolitically, much of this region is quite challenging when it comes to building secure farming systems and supply chains to the coast. It’s also possible that some of the current big players like Ethiopia and Uganda are resilient enough to prevail.”
Mitigating the effects of climate change
Many coffee farmers will lose if they do nothing to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“I see the solution in promoting agroforestry and increasing the number of coffee trees per hectare,” says Barigye. “Such a cultivation system is capable of restoring forest cover while increasing Arabica productivity by at least 69% (from 650 to 1100 trees per acre). The increased productivity increases the farmer’s capacity to invest in irrigation systems.
“The second solution is to prepare for the worst-case scenario where farmers cannot grow coffee. Such a scenario requires a diversification of income sources to include income-generating species that are heat tolerant, such as avocado, which fortunately can be grown with coffee as part of the agroforestry solution.”
Hoffman agrees that farmers could use shade crops like avocados, bananas, guava, or mangoes to keep coffee plants cooler and provide farmers with other revenues, some of which they can use to fund climate change adaptation efforts.
“In some areas of the world, shade trees increase bird populations that feed on coffee pests. Another option is to move coffee plantations to higher elevations, provided this is feasible and does not hamper efforts to protect hillside forests,” says Hoffman.
“To help farmers adapt to changing conditions, they need to know what to do, and coffee cooperatives can sponsor training programs for coffee farmers. Services provided by cooperatives can increase growers’ profits, allowing them to invest more in climate-friendly practices.”
Becerril says: “The best mitigation is prevention”.
“Healthy plants are more resistant to pests and drought and have higher yields. Nutrient-rich, species-rich soils allow healthy plants to grow. Regular post-harvest pruning and shade management regulate temperatures on the farm, prevent soil erosion and allow plans to direct nutrients to new growth, thereby increasing productivity,” she adds.
Above all, farmers need income that enables them to adapt to climate change. Private institutions and banks could provide microfinance to small coffee farmers to help them finance adaptation. Coffee vendors could help farmers employ different strategies to optimize yield, provide more resilient seeds, and monitor production.
Africa has some of the highest quality coffees in the world, but it lacks productivity compared to other coffee-producing continents. Public interventions such as farmer support schemes and training to improve productivity and sustainability could go a long way. Governments should invest in research to develop more resilient crops and climate-friendly policies.
Climate change could mean that coffee prices go up, quality goes down, and premium beans are harder to find. Industry and politics must act urgently if they want to prevent these problems from trickling down to consumers.