Kenyan firm helps farmers grow beans amidst changing weather patterns
By Mike StrathdeeAs printed in The Marketplace - May/June 2018
THIKA, KENYA — Arabica is the most popular coffee variety in the world, accounting for three-quarter of worldwide production by some estimates.
It’s also something that future generations will have to do without due to climate change, a Kenyan coffee expert suggests.
“Eventually, this type of coffee will disappear,” Elio Lolli predicted while giving a tour of his coffee plantation to MEDA supporters earlier this year. “It’s not (going to be) economically viable.”
Lolli, director of Caffe Del Duca, is looking for ways to develop new coffee varieties that will be able to thrive in the changing weather conditions.
A woman mixes coffee beans that are drying on long tables in the sun.Caffe Del Duca, located in Maboromoko- Thika, 26 miles north-east of Nairobi, works with thousands of farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to source quality coffee, roasting the collected product for local and export markets.
Through a recent partnership with MEDA, the company will work with 1,000 new farmers and 100 micro-enterprises in Western Kenya over the next two years, targeting an equal number of female and male entrepreneurs.
Lolli’s father came to Tanzania from Italy in 1954 to work in coffee, planning to stay for two years. “Since then, we’re still here.”
Throughout his working lifetime, Lolli has been involved in growing coffee and making machinery, including pulpers that reduce water consumption.
Climate change is a concern that forces the development of new coffee blends, including Italian blends. “We are actually seeing the climate change,” he said.
Caffe Del Duca used to get a late crop in November or December. Now they get the crop in May or June “which means the quality is going down, not up. Any good food or fruit, it takes a long time to ripen.”
In addition to declining quality, “it’s getting more difficult to produce because of the climate change.”
Finding the right moisture levels for coffee is challenging. If there is not enough rain, the beans become too light, Lolli said.
If there is too much rain, the coffee berries (also known as cherries) become diseased.
Historically, Kenya has had two distinct coffee crops, Arabica and Robusta, says Leonard Murwayi, a value chain specialist with the firm. Farmers have been marginalized as Kenya imports Robusta, so Caffe Del Duca is working to increase the domestic supply of Robusta.
Robusta coffee has generally been less favored than the Arabica. Robusta is more bitter and less flavorful than Arabica. Espresso in Kenya and Ethiopia has historically been 70 per cent Robusta and 30 per cent Arabica, according to Caffe Del Duca’s web site.
Over the past four years, the company has been working to create a nursery to cross-pollinate and create a Robusta coffee that is water resistant and high production.
Caffe Del Duca has 14 employees, two-thirds of them women. Women have better manual dexterity than men, making them better suited for working with seedlings, Lolli explains.
The partnership with MEDA will help Caffe Del Duca gain improved access to local, regional and international markets and strengthen the business capacity of the 100 entrepreneurs (coffee vendors) it works with.
It will also train farmers in post-harvest operations for improved quality, using collection points and helping groups to acquire drying tables. Soil conservation activities such as protecting water catchment areas will be stressed to prevent soil erosion.
A gender consultant will be hired to train both men and women on equity leadership, decision making, business development and financial literacy, including bookkeeping and tracking money. CDD will help entrepreneurs get the public health licences they need to enter the coffee business and assist some of them in buying subsidized coffee-making cans.
Some farmers will receive assistance in purchasing pruning tools, sack sprayers and affordable fertilizer.
Kenyan coffee growers prune their plants, something that is foreign to Ethiopian farmers. (In an unrelated consulting project, Lolli is trying to teach sustainable farming practices to Ethiopian growers.)
One part of the MEDA project targets one of Kenya’s most vulnerable populations — widows who are farmers. Caffe Del Duca will help widows to set up five demonstration farms and nurseries.
Vulnerable widows have been identified by CDD and MEDA as a specific group that will be targeted within the overall client population, says Lloyd McCormick, MEDA’s country manager for MEDA’s M-SAWA (equitable prosperity) initiative.
“Western Kenya was hit hard by the HIV and AIDS epidemic of the recent past, thus leaving a significant number of widows,” McCormick said. “The project will help a number of these widows access better livelihood opportunities (including) farming and small-scale vendor retail.”
Each new farmer needs five seedlings and a tree to provide shade to get into coffee production. Coffee bushes are intercropped with both food crops and shade trees. Plants take two years to mature enough to produce and will yield for five years.
A coffee bean (or cherry) is a seed of the coffee plant and the source for coffee. It is the pit inside the red or purple fruit.
CDD’s nursery grows plants from cuttings and seeds, producing up to 100,000 plants a year, focusing on varieties that are resistant to several diseases. “As the climate gets warmer, it (coffee plant) is more susceptible to leaf rust,” Lolli said.
Climate change is also increasing the size of insect pests. As temperatures increase, yields drop. Yields were down by 50 per cent in 2017, he said. “The taste varies from the date of the rainfall.” ◆