Due to global warming, it is becoming increasingly difficult to grow many traditional coffee varieties. Droughts and diseases threaten to decimate the harvests of these varieties. In Kenya, coffee farmers are encouraged to graft their older trees with newer, more resistant varieties as a solution to these problems.
To uproot a coffee tree means that a new one must be planted. As coffee trees only bear fruit after three to four years, replacing older trees with newer ones can be a costly process for farmers. It includes uprooting, buying the seedlings, digging new holes, buying fertiliser and much more, which significantly increase production costs.
On the other hand, if a farmer has a plantation with healthy traditional coffee trees, grafting will ensure the introduction of newer varieties that are more resistant to drought and disease. The newer plants will therefore be more resistant, which will result in lower production costs, as farmers can spray the plants in smaller quantities against diseases.
The Coffee Research Institute (CRI) has been exploring ways of switching from traditional varieties to new ones. The old varieties SL34, SL28 as well as KS7 have been in the country since colonial days and are well known among coffee lovers, but recently, CRI has introduced varieties Ruiru 11 and Batian. These two varieties have restored the confidence of Kenyan coffee farmers as they are drought tolerant, suitable for all altitudes of cultivation in Kenya and improve production. They are also resistant to coffee berry disease and coffee leaf rust.
But grafting is not an easy process. The institute has been investing in grafting technology and education, the latter aimed particularly at Kenyan youth. Dr Elijah Gichuru, the institute director, said this approach ensures service and availability across the country.
We normally assess the health of the stems and improve on the technology in terms of knowledge of who does grafting. We also train especially the youths so that they can pick up that art of converting, and if we have a good supply of seedlings and grafters in a certain location, they can all find a service.Dr Elijah Gichuru, Institute Director, CRI
Additionally, it encourages the younger generations to become interested in coffee, raising the next generation of producers, agronomists and processing specialists.
Grafting is a process in which the scion and rootstock are joined together. This is done by making an incision in the cane into which the scion is inserted. The two are tied together and covered with a polybag. Great care must be taken before the polythene sheet is partially lifted. This type of seedling will be ready for planting after about three and a half months.
Coffee production in Kenya has been dwindling. In the 1990s, Kenya produced coffee on about 170,000 hectares, and in 2020, only on 119,000 hectares, a decrease of 30%. Such initiatives by the CRI will encourage farmers to return to coffee farming, which the government is revitalising systemically.
Photo from Standard Media Kenya