The optimal areas for growing coffee in Ethiopia are mainly in the southern and south western areas of the country. These are places like Yirgacheffe, Limu and Sidamo. However, new regions like Guji and West Arsi have been gaining popularity in recent years.

Some of the major challenges facing the coffee sector are the threat of increasing temperatures, coffee genetic erosion, pest prevalence, and coffee market price fluctuations. Read on to learn more.

Benti Nenka in Guji zone of Oromia region in southern Ethiopia

Increasing temperatures

UNDP’s climate change profile for Ethiopia states there has been a temperature increase at a rate of 0.28 degree celsius per decade. Coffee is a climate sensitive perennial crop. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, arabica coffee’s optimal growing temperature range is 18°C–21°C (64°–70°F). It can tolerate mean annual temperatures up to roughly 24°C (73°F). 

For this reason, coffee grows in specific altitudes that offer these temperature ranges. As temperatures increase, ideal coffee growing conditions creep to higher and higher altitudes, diminishing coffee growing areas. According to the Climate Institute, coffee optimal areas worldwide will decrease by 50% by 2050

Genetic erosion

Coffee genetic erosion, or the reduction in the number of genetic varieties in existence, takes place as wild coffee species begin to disappear as the optimal area for growing them diminishes. Genetic diversity within existing wild species is essential to help breeders to boost the viability of commercial plants in the face of a changing climate, and the fewer species are lost, the better for breeding. 

Pest prevalence

Elevated CO2 can increase levels of simple sugars in leaves and lower their nitrogen content. These can increase the damage caused by many insects, who will consume more leaves in order to consume enough nitrogen. Thus, any attack will be more severe. Higher temperatures from global warming will mean that more pests will survive the winter season. Similarly elevated CO2 levels will help the overwintering of pathogens, while higher temperatures will favour thermophilic fungi. 

                  Alex examines rust on leaf as he inspects coffee plants during farms visits

Market price fluctuations

Market prices might be disrupted by climate change, as they were this year. Ethiopia’s rainy season precedes the harvest season, and it normally occurs in the months of June, July and August. Usually cherries begin ripening in October, marking the beginning of the harvest season. 

However in 2019 cherries did not ripen in October because the rainy season lasted weeks longer than usual. Cherries were not available for sale at the expected time. Frustration slowly began to build up among exporters as they were not able to buy cherries and parchment in the desired amount and at the ideal time. They were in fear of losing their customers and began to chase any available lots, resulting in higher prices for cherries. 

What is Ethiopia doing to mitigate climate change?

Forest conservation is very important in keeping the natural phenomena of coffee growing areas. Climate change is often caused by deforestation and degradation of natural vegetation. Tropical forest trees, like all green plants, take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen during photosynthesis. Plants also carry out the opposite process—known as respiration—in which they emit carbon dioxide, but generally in smaller amounts than they take in during photosynthesis. The surplus carbon is stored in the plant, helping it to grow.

When trees are cut down and burned, or allowed to rot, their stored carbon is released into the air as carbon dioxide. According to the best current estimate, deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of all global warming emissions. 

Between 2001 and 2018, Ethiopia lost approximately 370,000 hectares of tree cover. According to a study by the Jimma University College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, deforestation in Ethiopia is caused by varying factors including logging, population growth, urbanization, grazing, construction of dams and reservoirs, habitat fragmentation, slash and burn farming, wildfires, and hydroelectric projects. 

We were lucky enough to have a seedling planted just outside our office in Addis Ababa as part of a large scale national tree planting project.

The government have taken this issue very seriously and last year launched an aggressive tree planting initiative, part of a larger project called Green Legacy. Despite Covid-19 restrictions, planting has continued this year. The country plans to plant 5 billions seedlings in 2020, and aims to be climate-neutral by the year 2025, generating jobs in the process.