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Ugandan Coffee: wilting under pressure?

A smallholder coffee farmer bends to inspect several bushes which have just caught his attention. Previously unnoticed, the leaves are beginning to turn yellow; a fatal sign. Within a short period of time, the farmer knows that the yellowing will spread to all the leaves, and then to the stem and finally, the rest of the tree will die. A decade ago, the disease affecting these plants was unknown in Uganda but the disease now affects 22 out of the 34 coffee-growing districts in the country and it continues to spread. Coffee bushes killed by diseaseThe farmer knows from neighbouring farms, which have also recently been struck by the disease, that the diseased trees will have to be removed and burnt and the soil disinfected before more coffee plants can be grown.

Coffee Wilt Disease, tracheomycosis or vascular wilt disease, is caused by a fungus (Fusarium xylarioides). Previously the disease only occurred sporadically in Africa but in the last decade or so it has become virulent, sweeping across Cameroon, the Congo and into Uganda. According to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), the wilt mainly affects the native, lowland robusta variety and, since 1993, it has destroyed over 12 million plants. Uganda also grows arabica coffee, which is grown in the highlands. So far, this has remained unaffected by the disease. However, arabica only accounts for 10% of production.

Unique in Africa, Uganda has established an extensive clonal (as opposed to hybridal) replanting programme through which six carefully selected lines of indigenous robusta are made available to small farmers. Interplanted in alternating rows the clonal lines produce higher yields, larger bean sizes and a better inherent quality, which fetches a higher market price. Currently some 16,000 hectares (5%) of clonal robusta have been replanted although this is expected to increase to over 50,000 hectares by 2004. Seedling production is privatized and some 800 commercial nurseries are in operation producing about 22 million plantlets each year. Unfortunately, the clonal varieties have also been found to be susceptible to the disease although, by planting all six clonal lines, overall losses are reduced because some lines prove less susceptible than others.

Uganda is currently the largest producer of robusta coffee in Africa but, as the disease continues to spread combined with unusually dry weather during the last season, exports have recently fallen by 20%. Coffee provides an important source of income to the 500,000 smallholder farmers who traditionally intercrop it with food crops, such as bananas, beans, groundnuts and shade trees. According to UCDA figures, nearly 5 million people depend on the coffee sector for direct and indirect employment. With the continued spread of the disease affecting yields, and falling market prices, the agriculture minister, Dr Kibirige Sebunya, is concerned that the decline in the coffee sector will have serious repercussions on the Ugandan economy.

Ripe berries on clonal coffee developed in Uganda
credit: Ben Ochan

In the face of this threat, the Ugandan government has intensified efforts towards the containment of the disease through breeding and provision of free, clean planting materials. For example, the managing director of UDCA, Henry Ngabirano, has reported that some indigenous robusta trees grown in Bundibugyo in southwest Uganda have developed natural resistance to the wilt. These will be used in a 5-year research programme in the development of disease-resistant varieties. In addition, 1 billion Uganda shillings (US$ 571,428) has been provided by the government to UCDA to buy disease-free coffee plantlets from private nursery operators for distribution to farmers. The Ministry for Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries is also committed to regulating movement of coffee plants and harvested beans and is encouraging farmers to improve crop husbandry.

In recent years, coffee has provided 65% of Uganda's export earnings. Dry processed Ugandan robusta is renowned for its mild taste and is generally considered to be of superior quality. With the impact of coffee wilt, it is not going to be easy for smallholders to maintain production but if they can be supported to retain the quality, and with a focus on improved processing and marketing, the Ugandan smallholder coffee sector may be sustained.

East African Coffee Conference
Quality, competitiveness and profitability were the key messages from this regional conference, held in Kampala in June, which was organized by the Eastern African Fine Coffees Association. Participants were from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, producers and donor agencies. There was a recognition that only by understanding and meeting the demands of the consumer will eastern African coffees be able to compete successfully on the global market. Improving quality, consolidating production for the speciality market, reforming producer cooperatives, ensuring better payment procedures and a fairer share of the product's value to growers were all seen as important strategies. There were calls also to stimulate local consumer demand and Henry Ngabirano of the UCDA argued that the only way to address the issue of quality is to make the local coffee producer the first consumer.

Article based on material submitted by Ben Ochan, freelance journalist, Uganda

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