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A Drying Climate Threatens Africa’s Coffee, But Hope Remains

Sam Massa doesn’t drink coffee. Like many Ugandans, he prefers milky spiced tea. Yet, like many Ugandans, he says, “we are part of the coffee, and the coffee is in our blood.”

Massa lives at the top of an extinct volcano that straddles the border between Uganda and Kenya, in a small mud-brick house at the center of a grove of coffee trees. Some of the trees were planted here by his great-grandfather more than 100 years ago. Like his ancestors, Massa is a coffee farmer, and derives nearly all of his annual income from the produce of those trees, some of which ends up in the cups of coffee drinkers in the U.S. and other distant lands.

This place is among the oldest and most venerated coffee-producing regions of East Africa. The air is fresh and cool, the slopes studded with sweeping vistas and sparkling waterfalls. But trouble is coming up the mountain. In fact, it’s already at Massa’s door.

Uganda historically has two rainy seasons, from March through May and from October through December. Small farms in East Africa, like Massa’s, are almost exclusively without irrigation, meaning that reliable rainfall is a prerequisite to produce crops, including coffee. But in 2016, Massa’s area received almost no rain during the second season, and when it came time to harvest coffee in January, the yield was very poor. This was no freak accident, he says: In the last few years, the weather has been all wrong.

“Over the last, say, twenty years, the rain pattern has completely changed,” he says. “Rain comes at a time when you don’t expect it. Sunshine or drought come at time when you should be having rain.”

As a result, Massa’s household is suffering. Meals are simple and small, usually centered around home-grown bananas. Medication is a rare luxury. Purchases of tools and fertilizer needed for the upcoming planting season are on hold. Most distressingly to Massa, he is only able to afford to send four of his five children to school. The eldest, a teenage boy who should be the equivalent of a high school junior, is living at home.

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