13 Nov 2017

Coffee farmers go back to school

It’s a blisteringly hot day at the Machakos Union coffee cooperative, 60 kilometres south of the capital, Nairobi. Despite the heat, more than a hundred coffee farmers – women and men – are sitting in a classroom in what must be one of the most unusual schools in the world – the Fairtrade Climate Academy.

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Coffee cherries in Kenya.
Photo © Remo Naegeli

"The idea here is to train farmers to become more resilient, to become better businesses," says Wangeci Gitata, Fairtrade Africa’s Resource Mobilisation and Partnerships Manager. "This is a long-term project, so we are training farmers who can also go and teach other farmers. Their farms become the model that other people can come and learn from."

Coffee growers in Kenya and elsewhere in eastern Africa are certainly feeling the heat – and not just on this sunny day. During an intense four-hour course, farmers from the Machakos coop learn tips and techniques for adapting to the new climate reality, including water conservation, tree planting to provide shade, planting different crops to diversify their income and using clean energy instead of cutting down trees for firewood. Sixty thousand farmers and their families from 25 coffee coops in the Machakos Union rely on a healthy coffee crop for their livelihoods – but climate change makes that increasingly uncertain.

"Coffee is under threat, especially in this region," says Kubasu Agapeters, Partnership Manager at Fairtrade Africa. "Productivity is declining. Farmers don’t always have the necessary knowledge of how to adapt to climate change. They think it’s normal, but if you look at the history of the climate in this area you’ll see it is not normal. There’s very little awareness of what causes it, they don’t realise it’s man-made."

The morning session in the classroom over, it’s time to get outside into the fields for some practical field training. The farmers are shown how planting banana, avocado and macadamia trees among the coffee bushes not only provides much-needed shade from the sun – Machakos is only 200 kilometres from the Equator – but also alternative sources of income to compensate for lower coffee yields.

"These are trees that can withstand harsh environmental conditions," says Kubasu. "They actually add nutrients to the soil, so that when their leaves fall on the ground they form a layer of mulch. When you have shade trees on your farm, it means you are conserving soil moisture."

The Fairtrade Climate Academy also hopes to make farming more attractive to the next generation of coffee growers. "Many of the coffee farmers are poor," says Wangeci. "Most young people don’t want to do it anymore. They find it difficult work and work that isn’t paying well. If farmers can become better at business, if they can become stronger, there is hope for the future."