HAMBELA, Ethiopia – Few countries take coffee as seriously as Ethiopia – and that's not only because it prides itself as being the source of the prized Arabica bean.
But rising temperatures and worsening drought linked to climate change are now hitting production – and fixing that may require moving many Ethiopian coffee fields uphill, experts say.
Aside from its cultural value, coffee is Ethiopia's single largest source of export revenue, worth more than $860-million (R10.8-billion) in the 2016-2017 production year.
But coffee-growing areas in eastern Ethiopia have seen the average temperature climb 1.3 degrees Celsius over the past three decades, according to the Environment, Climate Change and Coffee Forest Forum (ECCCFF), an Ethiopian non-governmental organisation.
That has caused stronger drought and – given that coffee is a crop sensitive to both moisture and temperature – a worsening of diseases that afflict coffee berries.
As a result, thousands of hectares of coffee plants are being lost each year in traditional growing areas, which is raising fears about the future of Ethiopia's coffee production.
The country's government is now encouraging farmers to grow coffee at higher elevations – up to 3,200 metres above sea level, about 1,000 metres above the norm.
That could help mitigate some of the climate change pressures Ethiopia faces, said Birhanu Tsegaye, who heads extension services for coffee, tea and spices for the Ethiopia Coffee and Tea Development Marketing Authority (ECTDMA), a government body tasked with overseeing the sector.
As temperatures rise, "even areas not (formerly) suitable for coffee growing have become suitable, presenting an opportunity for the country to cope with climate change," he said.
Pressures from warming conditions have been noticed in other parts of the country too.
Aman Adinew, chief executive of Metad Agricultural Development, which manages two large plantations in Oromia and SNNP regional states, said changing weather patterns in the country's south had affected exports.
The annual harvest, which normally takes place in November and December at his Hambela and Gedeb coffee farms, was delayed by a month because the beans had not ripened, he said.
"Since the coffee beans were still green by the beginning of 2018 due to a shortage of rain, it led to a delay in coffee processing and export, effectively meaning breach of contract with our North American, Asian and European customers," he said.
Small farms, big business
Around 90 percent of Ethiopia's coffee-growers are small-scale farmers, and the industry, directly and indirectly, employs up to 20 percent of Ethiopia's 100 million population, ECTDMA said.
Exports in the 2016-2017 production year totalled just over 220,000 tonnes, figures from the trade ministry show.
Coffee exports have fluctuated over the last five years, making it difficult to discern any downward trend, Tsegaye told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But with the country adding tens of thousands of coffee hectares in new growing areas each year, that is offsetting many of the losses in traditional areas, he said.
Tsegaye said the government also was working to combat the effects of climate change in traditional coffee growing areas by offering small-scale farmers training on using shade trees to help hold down temperatures, and on irrigation and better crop handling after harvest.
He said the authority was also introducing hardier varieties of coffee, resistant to diseases and weather extremes.
However, Tsegaye admitted that current levels of assistance to traditional small-scale coffee farmers might not be enough to save the industry in those areas, which is why the coffee marketing authority is looking at growing coffee at higher altitudes.