Kenyan farmers turn to avocados in the face of a changing climate

3 Oktober 2020

As a widespread drought was devastating crops in Kenya, Steve Mbugua, a farmer in Nyeri county, decided to clear his half-acre plot of land with coffee plants. He then planted Hass avocadoes.

It was a wise decision, even if some of his neighbors questioned it at first.

Coffee is one of Kenya’s most important cash crops and the country is the fifth largest coffee-producer in Africa with annual yields of around 40,000 metric tons of beans.

But coffee plants require plenty of watering. During prolonged droughts in Kenya, many coffee plantations experience severe water shortages, which can cause berries to shrivel up or fail to appear at all.

As a result, vast amounts of coffee can be lost, posing risks to livelihoods in hard-up communities, which has been a concern to agricultural experts. The situation is worsened by climate change as rainfall patterns are becoming increasingly erratic across Africa.

“After the coffee flowered, the rains should have, under normal circumstances, continued through April and May but this abrupt disappearance triggered some berry formation to abort,” Charles Waturu, a local agricultural crop scientist, explained last year.

“Since the rains are yet to come, even young berries that might have survived might as well end having premature formation whose value and quality will be poor due to lack of rainfall,” he added.

Yet local farmers like Mbugua have been fighting back against a changing climate the only way they can: by switching crops. Many of them have begun growing Hass avocados, a Guatemalan cultivar that was first grown by agriculturalist Rudolph Hass in California in the United States a century ago.

Compared to coffee, avocado is more tolerant of variations in precipitation. In addition, avocados are low-maintenance plants by comparison and require less attention.

Better yet: demand for avocados has been high, which makes it an ideal cash crop in countries like Kenya, where avocados are among the most popular fruits and widely available at local markets all year round. Hass avocados, whose green skin turns dark purple when ripe, are also in demand at fruit markets in Europe.

Avocado plants can be grown by planting either seeds or seedlings. To get higher yields, however, many farmers employ a technique called crafting to boost the resistance of plants to diseases and a changing climate. It involves using roots or lower trunks, called rootstocks, from indigenous plants that are more resilient to pests and a hash climate alike. The rootstocks can then be crafted with Hass avocado twigs known as scions to create a sturdier plants with high yield.

Growing avocados has given farmers Mbugua a far better and more reliable income than coffee cultivation despite a changing climate and its vagaries. “[This is] due to the high demand … as avocado is considered to be a very nutritive fruit and has a lot of health benefits,” the farmer said. “I knew I would make money.”

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