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What Makes Coffee Wilt Disease Deadly

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On his farm in Kingo, Masaka district, Ssebatta Musisi, a coffee farm walks around his coffee plantation, occasionally gazing at coffee trees, picking a leaf here and there. Ssebatta, one of the farmers certified by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) to supply coffee seedlings to other farmers in the country has been growing coffee in this area for many years.

However, he says it has not been all plain sailing. “In the 90s, coffee in this area was attacked by what first appeared as a mysterious coffee disease,” he says. At the time, Ssebatta was not yet a big farmer, since he still held a job at Entebbe airport. The disease that Ssebatta is referring to is the Coffee Wilt Disease (CWD).

“It is the most deadly coffee disease to attack coffee in Uganda,” says Edward Lutaakome Ssentamu, Regional Manager, Central region for UCDA. 

Just like HIV/AIDS, CWD first manifested itself in Uganda in parts of Masaka, before it spread to other districts including Luwero and Mukono.  By the mid-90s, it had started affecting coffee production.   

Coffee Wilt Disease is caused by a fungus (Fusarium xylarioides). Previously the disease only occurred sporadically in Africa but in the 90s it became common, sweeping across almost all coffee growing parts of the country. Affected trees turn yellowish and faster, the crops withers away-in a similar manner HIV does to human beings.

According to the UCDA, the wilt mainly affects the native, lowland robusta variety and, since 1993, it has destroyed over 13 million plants.

Uganda is currently the largest producer of robusta coffee in Africa with export figures rising to over 7.6million, 60kg bags in 2020. However, at the end of  the 90s when the CWD was at its peak, production fell from around 4million bags in 1994 to just 1.7million bags towards the end of the 90s, thanks to the disease. 

Coffee provides an important source of income to the 500,000 smallholder farmers who traditionally intercrop it with food crops, such as bananas, beans, groundnuts and shade trees. According to UCDA figures, nearly 10 million people in 104 districts of Uganda depend on the coffee sector for direct and indirect employment.

Just like the case was with HIV, the Ugandan government has intensified efforts towards the containment of the disease through breeding and provision of free, clean planting materials.

CWD still has got no cure, just like HIV, however resistant indigenous varieties are providing good hope. According to  the Managing director of UCDA, Emmanuel Illyamulemye, says that there are indigenous robusta trees grown in Kibaale forest in southwest Uganda  that have developed natural resistance to the wilt. These are being researched on by experts, the same way humans who are resistant to HIV are.

Becausethere has been no cure for CWD found yet, farmers are advised to carry out clean coffee farming in order to keep off the disease. “Farmers must plant clean seedlings, which are only got from certified coffee seedlings suppliers,” advises Lutaakome.

These are the recommended good practices

– Select gently sloping land and avoid very steep slopes;

– Select deep, fertile, well aerated and freely draining soils with good structure and texture and rich in organic matter;

– Clear and clean land of all tree stumps, roots and obnoxious weeds;

– Mark out the field using pegs at spacing of 3×3 meters for Robusta Coffee and 2.4 meters for Arabica Coffee or 10×10 feet for Robusta Coffee or 8×8 feet for Arabica Coffee between and within rows running parallel to the contour;

– Three months before planting, dig holes 60cm deep by60 cm long and 60cm deep (or 2 feet wide x 2 feet long x 2 feet deep). The top soil should be placed on the upper side and the sub soil on the lower side;

-Place about 10 kgs, (1 Tin) of manure per planting hole;

– Fill back the holes two months before planting by mixing the manure with the top soil and placing the mixture in the hole to fill it.

– Fix a stick in the middle of hole while filling to indicate where the plantlet will be planted;

– Procure planting material only from certified Clonal coffee nurseries.


– Planting should be done at least after 4 consecutive rainy days of the rain season;

– Water the potted cutting/seedling the day before planting;

– Planting should be done in the evening hours of the day;

– Remove the stick from the planting hole, (in viii) and make a hole large enough size to accommodate the plantlet;

– Remove the polythene bag by cutting off its base;

– Cut back the tap root and remove the twisted parts of the root system;

– Place the polythene bag in the hole and gently pull up the polythene (now cylinder) out over the top of the plant – (Caution: The used polypots should be burnt or buried in a deep pit after removal);

– The soil is then packed round the plant and gently pressed down around the collar of the plant, making certain that the plant is at the same level in the field soil as it was in the bag. This is to avoid fungal attack that leads to collar rot;

– Water the new plant immediately and every evening for at least 4 days if no rain available

– Provide shade to the newly planted plantlet using bamboo, tree branches etc.

Inter-cropping and Inter-planting in young coffee

– Recommended inter crops are bananas and legumes eg. soya beans, ground nuts and non-climbing phaseolus beans;

– Legumes must be confined within the central 2 meters of the inter-row leaving a clear 0.5 meter between them and the coffee tree;

– Bananas are inter-cropped in the ratio of 1 banana to 4 coffee trees;

– Shade trees should be inter-planted at a spacing of 60 feet; and

– Shade trees need to be with a wide canopy, leguminous, deep rooted, quick maturing, multipurpose, and without thorns.

Tips given by UCDA

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