Coffee farmers in Central Kenya adopt climate-friendly crop to boost yields

A farmer tends to her coffee in Nyeri town

A farmer tends to her coffee in Nyeri town on October 25, 2022. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Farmers say the crop is bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change, becoming susceptible to diseases and pests that vary according to heat and humidity.
  • Coffee is a fragile crop that can succumb to shifts in weather patterns and now farmers have embraced and adopted more climate-resilient propagated coffee varieties.

Changes in coffee cycles attributed to vagaries of climate change resulting in lower production have forced farmers in parts of Central Kenya to devise solutions to rising temperatures as part of their attempt to adapt to the changing weather patterns.

Farmers say the crop is bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change, becoming susceptible to diseases and pests that vary according to heat and humidity.

Coffee is a fragile crop that can succumb to shifts in weather patterns and now farmers have embraced and adopted more climate-resilient propagated coffee varieties and shade coffee growing, a concept borrowed from Ethiopia.

Shade coffee farms traditionally use little or no chemical fertilizer with coffee grown underneath a canopy of taller trees that provide shade from the sun. As the coffee beans mature more slowly in the shade, natural sugars increase and enhance the flavour of the coffee.

The nitrogen-fixing shade trees enhance the soil and also provide a habitat for birds. The birds in turn provide natural insect control with their constant foraging. This sustainable method of farming uses little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

The year 1988 was best for coffee growers in Kenya with a bumper harvest of 128,700 metric tons, the highest ever total production achieved, but the fortunes that would have motivated more growers marked the start of the collapse of the industry, with production reducing to 36, 867 metric tons in 2020.

Within the same period, acreage under coffee dropped from 170, 000 hectares to 116, 000 hectares while to three kilos of clean cherry.

Mr Peter Wairera who is the chairperson Giakanja Farmers’ Cooperative Society in Nyeri is convinced that though the poor prices ignited the collapse of the industry, progressively, climate change was a key factor.

“With my experience, 1998 was the best harvest in Kenyan history, then growers were poorly paid as little as 50 cents per kilo. Farmers were discouraged, they abandoned or uprooted their bushes. By the year 2020, production decreased as the cost of production increased. Diseases and pests were rampant. The number of active growers at Giakanja Society dropped to 900 from above 2, 000,” recalls Mr Wairera.

To save the industry, researchers introduced the Ruiru 11 coffee variety, adopted by farmers replacing SL varieties introduced by colonialists, and then came improved Batian Varieties.

“Newly introduced varieties came with challenges attributable to weather patterns and climate change. Though Ruiru varieties were tolerant to diseases and pests, they needed more rain which had become elastic. Cherry quality deteriorated affecting the prices, and Coffee Berry Disease worsened and frosts worsened,” said Mr Wairera.   

Mr Joram Mathenge, Executive Director of Kiangure Springs Environment Initiative (KSEI), a conservation organisation supported by Belgium-based Tree Nation, is in a race to remedy the situation.

Mr Mathenge said uprooting of the coffee bushes worsened the situation, further contributing to the vagaries of weather and climate change in Central Kenya, a region that for decades experienced adequate predictable weather patterns that made it easier for farmers to plan their seasons adhering to the coffee calendar.

“Coffee bushes are very important in sinking the carbon gases. It’s among the best sinkers since it requires a lot of carbon to produce caffeine. By mass uprooting coffee bushes, the farmers were guided by short-term gains, unaware of creating a monster facing us today,” said Mr Mathenge.

His sentiments on coffee carbon sinking capacity are supported by Mr John Karia, a lead National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) consultant in Thika, Kiambu County, also an active coffee growing zone.

Mr, Karia, also the director of Greenpro Environmental and Safety Solutions Limited, says coffee is among lead carbon sinking trees since they are planted in large plantations.

“Coffee bushes are planted in large plantations like a forest covering hectares of land, they sure have the capacity to sink a lot of carbon,” said Mr Karia.

Mr Mathenge says caffeine from coffee contains 49.48 per cent carbon, followed by 28.87 per cent nitrogen among other components, but coffee leaves contain the highest levels of caffeine than any other part of the coffee plant, meaning they absorb more carbon.

“Due to the high concentration of carbon in coffee leaves, you will find that they stop other plants from growing where they drop, we all know that active and productive coffee bushes need less weed control,” said the Kiangure Springs Environment Initiative Director.

Armed with these facts and realities of changing fortunes attributed to the vagaries of weather, coffee farmers in Nyeri are in a race to mitigate the challenges.

After the rewarding results based on the pilot project in the environment-friendly and shade coffee growing method supported by (KSEI) and the Tree Nation, growers under respective cooperative societies embraced the methods.  

At Ihithe Village in Tetu Constituency, Mr Peter Githaga is among the beneficiaries of the pilot project, planting 1,000 coffee seedlings now at cherry producing stage.

“For the trial, I planted the new grafted Ruiru coffee variety in a farm already planted with macadamia and avocado, interestingly, the crop had no CBD nor was it destroyed by frost. With such results, last month I planted 500 more coffee trees intercropped with avocado and macadamia nuts. We have also been trained on the importance of coffee and fruit trees in mitigating climate change,” said the farmer.

Under this concept, KSEI and the Belgium-based Tree Nation are advocating for indigenous tree planting in the Aberdare Forest, while fruit trees are intercropped with the improved coffee bushes.

The other approach is by promoting energy-saving jikos, and promotion of bio-gas which are highly embraced by schools that are high wood fuel consumers.

At Kihatha Secondary School in Nyeri, they are using biogas for cooking and at their laboratory.

“Telling farmers to plant trees has proved to be unsustainable, the farmers will cut the trees for firewood, on the other hand, intercropping the fruit trees with the coffee is land economical.

The size of land has decreased, but with the fruit trees, the farmer will earn from the fruit trees while at the same time conserving the environment and protecting the coffee bushes from diseases and pests attack, what the trees do is protect the coffee bushes from frost which is the biggest enemy of the coffee bushes,” says Mr Mathenge.  

Mr John Kirathe, the Giakanja Society general manager says 300 members benefitted at the piloting and agrees with Mr Mathenge that the Shade Coffee growing is the way to go in conserving the environment and giving farmers sustainable incomes.

“Supported by the Kiangure Springs Environment Initiative, we have established a tree nursery where we propagate our own coffee varieties, with a section set aside for scion development. We have also installed solar dryers to dry coffee beans. Our coffee is no longer rejected by buyers for poor drying that compromises the quality,” said Mr Kirathe.


According to a report by Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems published in April 2022, Coffee farmers in Kenya perceived dense shade as potentially problematic at high elevations, while they considered it beneficial at low elevations in regulating temperature, sun damage and pest incidences.

“This may change in future scenarios with climate change and elevated atmospheric CO2, where 50% shade at high elevations will become beneficial as found in yield models,” it states.

It says “By utilizing shade, coffee farmers may also reap the associated benefits including increased biodiversity, biological control of pests and diseases, climate-buffering services, as well as diversified incomes resulting from shade-tree products.”

The presence of shade trees in coffee farming systems has generally been associated with favourable microclimate modifications such as lower air temperature fluctuations, increased air relative humidity, lower wind speed and decreased frost damages