Erratic rains, rising temperatures take a heavy toll on coffee farmers in Uganda

KASESE, Uganda – Luka Kinyere felt the wet, dark volcanic soil in his calloused palm, thankful for the rain that was falling again after a dry spell.

Although the coffee plants in his plantation were turning green, dry conditions had doomed his chances of turning a profit from this year’s second harvest.

Here in the foothills of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains near the border with Congo, coffee is the lifeblood of many families, and men like the polygamous Kinyere need great coffee yields to run their households. But their success is threatened by climate change, which has warmed the region over the years, encouraging pests and diseases and bringing erratic but intense rains that erode fertile earth. Consequently, harvests have become unpredictable.

“We are in trouble now,” Kinyere said one recent morning as he weeded his coffee plantation, which is interspersed with banana trees.

Many of the plants in his estate are infected with leaf rust, a fungal disease that coffee production experts here say has become more prevalent because of rising temperatures. When the rust infects a coffee estate, the leaves of some plants develop yellow spots and fall prematurely. The result is a delayed harvest with coffee beans so small they can’t fetch a good price in the market.

Alice Sanyu, a production adviser with the local government who tours plantations in several villages teaching smallholder farmers how to adapt to climate change, contorted her face when she saw Kinyere’s afflicted garden and asked him why he appeared unable to control leaf rust. He shrugged, saying only that “the sun is disturbing the crop.”

Although many locals here know about climate change, which will be the focus of an upcoming U.N. conference where African countries hope to play a major role, they are not equipped to deal with its impact on the quality and quantity of their agricultural output. Kinyere mulched his two-acre plantation and dug trenches to conserve water when it rains, but that won’t help when a dry spell lasts more than several months. And often he can’t afford to apply herbicides when dangerous diseases invade his estate.

“You will find coffee plants naked, without leaves,” said Sanyu, the adviser, talking about drought conditions. “When that happens, the plant will take a long time to return to its normal state. Flowering will almost fail.”

Uganda is one of Africa’s top coffee producers, second only to Ethiopia, and some of the country’s finest Arabica coffee — favoured by many for its low caffeine amount and for its sweet, fruity taste — is grown here in this frontier district of Kasese along the Equator. The days tend to be hot and the nights cold, but long-time residents say the conditions have been getting more extreme as the Rwenzori Mountains, an alpine range dubbed “mountains of the moon” and depicted in 1990 Hollywood film of the same name, lose much of their glaciers. Last year, the conservation group Pax Arctica said at the end an expedition to the Rwenzoris that rapid ice melting linked to climate change had reduced the amount of water flowing into the Nyamwamba River, which residents use to irrigate their crops. Experts now believe the glaciers atop the Rwenzoris will disappear in two decades, perhaps as early as 2025.

That’s bad news not just for coffee growers but for all farmers in the region. A 2013 study by the aid group Oxfam concluded that “most areas” in the Rwenzoris, especially those at altitudes below 1,500 metres (4,900 feet), will eventually become unsuitable for coffee and coffee growers “will have to switch crops.”

A top-quality harvest can fetch up to $1.5 per kilogram, but buyers will pay much less for a harvest including so-called “black beans,” cherries picked before they were ripe. Some harvests may even be rejected if the buyer suspects the beans will return “sour, unpleasant coffee that tastes like urine,” said Rajabu Kituku, the local manager of Great Lakes Coffee Ltd.

“The farmers don’t know when the rains will start, and when the rains start they don’t know when the sun will shine,” Kituku said. “Climate change is for real. It affects the whole system: the farmer, the buyer, the government, everyone. They never get enough rain here.”

Ahead of the U.N. climate change conference in Paris, African leaders say they hope for “climate justice,” a comprehensive agreement that would help one of the worst-affected continents to cope with climate change.

African governments expect to be helped on issues of mitigation and adaptation, especially through technology transfer, Ayele Hegena, an Ethiopian official who will be among a group of African negotiators at the Paris summit, told a recent meeting organized by the African Union.

“Africa must be strategically engaged in this process,” he said.