By Joshua Kato
A few weeks ago, we planned a farmer training in Busulani sub-county, Sironko district. At about 9:45am, we arrived at the training venue.
The scheduled meeting time was 10:00am, but one of the participants, Mary Nafuna, was unusually early for the training. Impressed by her act, I decided to engage in a conversation with her.
After we exchanged pleasantries, I appreciated her for managing her time, and her commitment to growing coffee. To the former, she spoke in the affirmative, but the latter, she told me she would soon abandon the crop for other less risky farming ventures.
Nafuna narrates her frustration growing coffee amid changing weather patterns.
‘‘I grew up seeing my parents grow coffee, and when I got married, I chose to emulate them by growing more coffee. But I had never experienced such challenges of extreme weather conditions,’’ she notes.
‘‘Some times, we experience prolonged dry seasons, while the rain season is shorter. This seriously affects the coffee. I cannot recall how many times, I have replaced seedlings as a result of prolonged drought.’’
Nafuna’s experience is not very unique from other farmers in her region and beyond, whose farm size is less than two hectares.
Wamai David, a coffee farmer in Bbuta, Manafwa district, says the changing rainfall patterns cause uncertainty on seasons.
‘‘It is increasing becoming difficult to know when to plant coffee. We have to keep buying seedlings to replant since some of them dry up after planting,’’ he notes.
Wamai also observes that the droughts have become longer, yet the rains were shorter, and rainfall during the rainy season was becoming more erratic.
Historically, the rainy season in Uganda is between March till May and October till November. Light rain season falls in November and December. Dry seasons are from December to February and June to August.
Uganda is facing significant effects of a changing climate; increased frequency of extreme weather events such as floods, drop in water levels, changing weather patterns, as well as drought, whose social economic influences make farming communities very vulnerable.
The country is ranked as the 15th most-vulnerable country to climate change globally, and the 49th least prepared country to combat the effects, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index (2019) ranks Uganda. Indubitably, the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, have a significant impact on agriculture with long-term implications of poverty and increased food insecurity.
The majority of smallholder farmers in Uganda, such as Wamai, rely on the seasonal rains to ripen the coffee beans. The price they get for their coffee is strongly influenced by bean characteristics such as size and minimal defects, which are largely influenced by the amount and timing of rainfall.
Ms Lorna Kwaka, an agronomist at the National Coffee Research Institute (NaCORI), says too little rainfall during the growing season stresses plants, which may cause branch death, defoliation or reduce resources for fruiting. This, she adds, may lead to small and damaged coffee beans. On the contrary, Kwaka, notes that high temperatures can accelerate berry development and ripening, reducing bean filling and in turn causing smaller bean sizes.
‘‘Unfavorable rainfall and temperature can also promote the conditions that damage and discolor coffee beans. Too much rainfall can dislodge flowers and fruits, or if heavy rain occurs during harvest, increased moisture favors conditions for mold growth, disease and excessive fermentation, all of which may increase coffee bean defects,’’ Kwaka adds.
Ugandans have a long history with coffee. Coffee is viewed as an economic cornerstone; traditionally, it is revered as a sign of friendship and hospitality. But such history risks being dented because of climate change.
A study of the global impact of climate change predicts that climate pressure could reduce the area suitable for coffee production, especially, Arabica, globally by 50 percent by 2050. Arabica coffee is grown in high altitude areas (above 1400m), but this altitude threshold is likely to move up, if temperatures rise.
Experts have warned of longer and more extreme periods of drought and rain, making farming even harder. This is likely to distress the volumes of coffee produced. According to Uganda Coffee Development Authority, Uganda’s coffee volumes have steadily increased from about 7.75 million 60kg bags in FY 2019/20 to 8.06 million 60 kg bags in FY 2020/21.
Dr. Godfrey Sseremba, an agronomist and senior research officer at NaCORI, says; ‘‘We can no longer just rely on ‘our fertile land and favorable climate’ to grow coffee. We need to adapt to a changing climate by embracing use of quality planting materials, water conservation and shade technologies.’’
In the face of a changing climate, smallholder farmers such as Mutuwa and Wamai, whose return on investment in coffee is steadily declining, prompting them to abandon coffee for other crops, need locally available and sustainable adaptation strategies.
One such strategy is planting shade trees in their coffee gardens. According to Dr. Sseremba, shade can reduce temperatures in the coffee canopy by up to 2°C. Shade trees and crops such as bananas help to adapt the coffee systems to increasing temperatures, but also provide additional food and income.
The National Coffee Research Institute has recommended shade trees species for each of the six coffee-growing sub-regions in Uganda. The most common tree species that farmers are familiar with are mugavu (Albizia coriaria) and mutuba (Ficus natalensis). Some farmers, especially in coffee-growing areas in Central Uganda, best describe the former as Omugavu Omuganda. Farmers need to appreciate the pluses and minuses of intercropping such trees and other crops in their gardens, especially as production areas become drier and hotter. The decision about which shade tree to intercrop with coffee should be informed by facts. According to studies by NaCORI, Some tree species have been found to be alternative hosts to pests that adversely affect plant yields. The damage caused by pests such as the Black Coffee Twig Borer to Robusta coffee production, for instance, is likely to increase as the climate warms because these suck sap from the plant and reproduce rapidly during such seasons.
Dr. Sseremba also notes that adding shade or shade crops to a coffee system increases competition among the different plants for water, nutrients and light. But he advises that this should be managed by using good agronomic practices such as soil and water conservation practices, integration of fertilizers and organic nutrient inputs.
Farmers also need pest management tactics that accentuate use of locally-available materials. Such often turn out to be affordable, sustainable and environmentally-friendly. They do not encourage use or spraying of man-made chemicals, which is desirable in organic coffee farming. Methods such as trapping the insect pests; using natural pesticides extracted from plant or animal origins; planting other plant species on-farm to repel off the dangerous pests are some of the farmer-friendly means that can be explored.
Between 2012 to 2013, it is reported that rising temperatures fueled a major coffee rust crisis in Central America, where unprepared farmers lacked the know-how and resources to stop it. More than half the planted area was destroyed and at least 350,000 people lost their jobs.
As Ugandan researchers work toward developing varieties that are drought-tolerant, farmers could undertake sustainable, affordable and environmentally-friendly means to cushion their plants against extreme weather changes. This could enhance their crop yields and hence improve their livelihoods.