Ulrich Doering / Alamy

For Tanzania’s coffee farmers, climate change is a buzzkill

The nation’s most important export crop, coffee is feeling the heat

MAMSERA, Tanzania — For the last 20 years, Fredrick Damien has watched as his coffee trees have produced fewer and fewer beans. Back in the 1990s, his half-acre farm at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro turned out as many as 330 pounds of coffee a season, but now he’s happy to harvest 200 pounds of beans. He’s tried planting other crops to make up for the shortfall, but in this region coffee is the only viable cash crop.

“I’m trying to put more effort into growing bananas, but I’m mostly just asking God for a miracle,” he says.

The culprit cutting into Damien’s bottom line is one that he only vaguely understands and that has no easy solution: climate change. Over the last 60 years, rising nighttime temperatures have taken a toll on coffee production in this remote corner of Africa, reducing yields by roughly half. Countries throughout East Africa and other coffee growing regions around the world are likewise expected to experience reduced yields if current trends continue. As the world feels the effects of global warming more acutely, coffee farmers, the vast majority of whom live on razor thin margins, are likely to be among the hardest hit.

“We are feeling very worried because we don’t have any other alternatives [to generate income] like mining. We just have coffee. If the weather keeps changing we will have nothing else to do,” says Mary Faustimi, general secretary of the Mamsera Agriculture Marketing Co-operative Society, in the Kilimanjaro region. “We’ve tried to mitigate the effects of climate change. We’ve stopped cutting down trees, and we’ve done what we can, but it’s frustrating because now it depends on other people."

‘Economically, coffee helps us much more than other crops. You can make enough money to send your kids to school with coffee, but other crops like bananas allow you to make just enough to support your basic needs.’

Joseph S. Massae

Mamsera Agriculture Marketing Co-operative Society

As ubiquitous as coffee has become (worldwide, caffeine lovers drink 1.6 to 2.25 billion cups every day), few consumers may realize the scale of the global industry. Coffee is second only to oil as the world’s most traded commodity, surpassing others such as natural gas and gold. Annually, the coffee trade is valued at $100 billion. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, 80 percent of the world’s coffee is grown by 25 million small farmers and cultivation of the plant generates a livelihood for an additional 100 million people in countries where it is grown.

Within Tanzania, over the last century the crop has developed into an indispensable source of income for many farmers. Catholic missionaries first brought coffee to the country in 1898. By 1919, Tanzanians, then under British rule, received permission to begin growing coffee as a cash crop and six years later formed the country’s first coffee collective. Since then, coffee has become the nation’s most important export crop, generating an average of $100 million per year in export value over the last 30 years. It provides jobs for 2.4 million people, or 9.3 percent of the country’s workforce. Accounting for just 5 percent of Tanzania’s total exports, coffee isn’t quite the backbone of the East African nation’s economy, but in the regions where it is grown, farmers say it’s the only cash crop capable of buying growers a modicum of social mobility.

Joseph S. Massae
Tom A. Peter

“Economically, coffee helps us much more than other crops. You can make enough money to send your kids to school with coffee, but other crops like bananas allow you to make just enough to support your basic needs,” says Joseph S. Massae, owner of a 2.5-acre coffee farm.

Over the last several decades, however, farmers like Damien and Massae have noticed a considerable reduction in their coffee yields. Many have attributed the problem to changing rainfall patterns, an effect of climate change. But according to a report released earlier this year by a team of researchers, including Alessandro Craparo, a fellow with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the root of the problem is much more likely changing temperatures. Within the country’s arabica-coffee growing areas, minimum nighttime temperatures have climbed by 1.43 degrees celsius over the last 49 years.

“Farmers are much more aware of rainfall, and a change in rainfall would be a much easier variable to pick up, whereas a small change in nighttime temperature, no one will really see the difference,” says Craparo. “If you look at this globally, we’ve never, ever seen increases in minimum temperatures like this before. Temperatures in Tanzania are increasing at a substantial rate, almost twice that of maximum temperatures. This is indeed a global phenomenon.”

Coffee beans
Bernd Jonkmanns / Laif / Redux

Craparo, who is also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that other crops such as apples, pears, rice and wine grapes will also be affected by the changes in temperature. But the impact on coffee is dramatic. Over the last 60 years, Tanzania’s average yield per hectare has been cut roughly in half. If current trends continue, Craparo estimates, by 2060 increases in temperature will nearly cut the average yield in half once again. For every 1 degree celsius that nighttime minimum temperatures rise, coffee production will decrease by about 300 pounds per 2.5 acres. Tanzania now generates an average of almost 500 pounds of coffee per 2.5 acres.

Other issues such as aging coffee trees, pests, plant disease and changing rain patterns have also influenced coffee yields, but he says changes in temperature have caused the biggest effect.

Dealing with falling yields has proved a massively difficult challenge for farmers, in part because of their belief about the cause. Local coffee collectives and growing associations advise farmers to build rainwater collection systems, switch to a drought-resistant variety of coffee or, at the most basic level, spread mulch to help the soil retain water.

These measures could have a positive impact, but Craparo says they can only help so much given the changes in temperature. A much more viable solution, he says, would be to plant shade trees. The banana trees that farmers currently intersperse with their coffee plants trap heat, potentially exacerbating the problem created by rising temperatures.

‘People from developed countries are not feeling the problem, because they have other alternatives. But here we have no other alternatives, and we depend on agriculture.’

Joseph S. Massae

Whatever approach farmers decide to take, finding the money to make the necessary changes is a major hurdle. Primus Kimaryo, director of coffee quality and promotion for the Tanzania Coffee Board, advocates drought resistant trees and rainwater collection. But new coffee trees take three years to begin producing. A rainwater collection system costs roughly $950, while the average farmer in the area grosses about $240 per year from their coffee.

“All of these things require seed money. They need some money for the three years while they’re waiting for the coffee to start producing. Where will this money come from?” says Kimaryo. “Characteristically, these growers have very small farms and they depend on nature and rainfall for their source of moisture for their crops. It’s difficult for them to mitigate this.”

George Paul supports his family with a three-quarter-acre plot of land in Mamsera where he grows coffee and bananas. Since 1990, he says, the amount of money he makes selling his coffee has been sliced in half. Walking through his fields, one immediately sees the toll his crops endure. His coffee trees have paltry clusters of beans, making it apparent to even a city person that his trees are underperforming. Paul has given up trying to fertilize them.

“I don’t have the money to make improvements,” he says. He makes about $50 a year selling his coffee.

Rising temperatures have also created a bigger plant disease and pest problem for coffee farmers. The coffee berry borer, a beetle that attacks coffee beans, can be devastating for farmers — and a warmer climate has meant that the beetle can thrive at higher altitudes. In a paper published in 2011, researchers warned that the berry borer will pose a major threat to arabica-coffee farmers in East Africa. Globally, the berry borer costs farmers in excess of $500 million every year. For farmers like Paul, this means spending more money on pesticides to protect his crops.

“Yields will not become high unless you apply pesticides to treat these diseases that have arrived because of climate change. This is a cost to the farmer, but these farmers cannot afford to buy these,” says Honest Temba, general manager of the Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union, which serves more than 70,000 coffee farmers in Tanzania.

Although many mitigation tactics are costly for farmers, Craparo points to the large sums of money the coffee industry generates. If more of this money were used to help farmers adapt, he says, growers would stand a much better chance of alleviating the effects of climate change. Presently, coffee growers receive 7 to 10 percent of the retail price of coffee sold in supermarkets.

“There’s enough money there. It’s just not going to the right guys,” he says.

Arabica-coffee producers around the world could face problems similar to those of growers in Tanzania, although a dearth of reliable data makes it difficult to confirm the extent of the effects. Still, Craparo found “strikingly similar” temperature trends in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Kenya. In the future he hopes to collect data in other regions.

This April, a report examined the effects of climate change on arabica coffee and found results similar to Craparo’s. Its authors wrote that changing temperatures will likely shift coffee growing to higher altitudes and higher latitudes.

On his Mamsera farm, Massae has managed to make a number of changes to mitigate the affects of the changing environment, such as digging large trenches to collect rainwater. But with a farm easily twice as big as most of his neighbors’, he’s more able to afford these adaptations than most.

“People from developed countries are not feeling the problem, because they have other alternatives,” says Massae, who is also assistant secretary of the Mamsera Agriculture Marketing Co-operative Society. “But here we have no other alternatives and we depend on agriculture. The only solution is for our government to advocate to other countries.”


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