Climate Smart Agriculture for Kenya’s Coffee Sector

Coffee is one of Kenya’s mainstay cash crops. Its contribution to the economy as a major foreign exchange earner and source of income cannot be understated. However, recent research by the Kenya Coffee Research Institute reveals that climate change has caused shifts in rainfall and temperature regimes distorting the health and productivity of Kenya’s ‘Black Gold’. The report also projects that the conditions will worsen and areas suitable for coffee growing will reduce drastically if remedial steps are not taken.

It is from this background that Nature Kenya and Rainforest Alliance/UTZ Program jointly designed a program to promote mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture and ecosystem-based practices for the coffee sector value chain. Rainforest Alliance/UTZ program is a Netherlands-based certification program that is famed for coming up with sustainable farming techniques for coffee, tea, cocoa and hazelnut farmers around the world.

The mainstreaming program is meant to customize some of the strategies applied in climate-smart farming to suit the needs in the coffee sector. Mainstreaming ensures that farming practices adapt and mitigate to meet the prevailing changing climatic conditions while improving productivity. The target was stakeholders in the coffee sector nationally, and in five coffee growing counties of Meru, Embu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri and Murang’a. Other who were roped into the program include farmers’ representatives, coffee society leaders and extension service providers.

In the coffee sector value chain, climate change poses great risk to all stakeholders, but especially to farmers at the estates and smallholder level. There is still a major capacity gap on climate-smart agriculture, sustainable environmental practices and mitigation and adaptation measures towards climate change. To date, many smallholder farmers continue to follow environmentally harmful practices like cutting down trees, slashing and burning plant biomass, poor tillage practices, poor management of coffee processing by-products and the degradation of forests and riparian areas. The other major setbacks include an increase in the prevalence of pests and diseases and natural calamities such as landslides and drought. There is also a significant reduction of land suitable for coffee production.

The objectives of the program are to sensitize sector players on climate change policy and legal framework applicable to the coffee sector; the risks of climate change on coffee production and the entire value chain; and to educate them about the best practices of climate-smart agriculture and ecosystem-based adaptation opportunities that can be explored. Some of the identified applicable climate-smart interventions in the coffee sector include terracing, water harvesting and reduced burning of farm residue. Changing crop varieties, crop rotation, inter-cropping with nitrogen fixing legumes, and use of organic fertilizers are some of the practices that, if adopted, can improve soil health. Increasing agroforestry to increase shading, and reducing deforestation while increasing reforestation of riparian areas can also sustainably create resilience for climate change in coffee growing zones.

Coffee farmers are encouraged to engage in sustainable alternative livelihoods activities as a coping mechanism. The ventures include beekeeping, fish farming and chicken enterprise targeting improved local breeds. Farmers can make charcoal briquettes from coffee husks which can be used by farmers’ households and the surplus sold. There are environmental and health benefits realized with the use of charcoal briquettes coupled with energy saving stoves key among them being avoided deforestation, reduced inhalation of smoke and, women and children are saved time spent looking for fuelwood.

These low-cost strategies are designed to help smallholder farmers mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Currently, Kenya’s annual coffee production stands at 40,000 metric tons. The World Coffee Research believes that implementation of climate-smart agriculture strategies in the coffee sector can improve farmers’ productivity by 45 per cent. When properly implemented, climate-smart agriculture has been known to increase productivity and support higher incomes for farmers, while reducing carbon emissions and equipping farmers with necessary skills to adapt.