Farmers in East Africa are enduring an extremely tough year. Michael Gehrken, who farms Blackburn Estate in Tanzania, recently sent us an update on the challenges he is facing as the new crop starts coming in. It’s a vivid reminder of how much hard graft goes into producing the fine coffees we source.
The severe drought and ensuing hunger crisis afflicting parts of East Africa is now headline news. According to the UN, this is the worst drought to hit the region in 60 years, with some 12 million people threatened by starvation in four countries – Somalia (the worst hit), Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. People’s livestock, crops and incomes have been wiped out and refugees are now pouring into already overstretched camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Thankfully Tanzania itself is not on the crisis list. Lying west of the main drought zone, it has avoided the devastating conditions afflicting its neighbours. As Michael tells us, however, the situation is far from easy and water is increasingly scarce.
Blackburn is extremely well equipped with purpose-built reservoirs to collect rain water, as well as a newly finished pipeline that funnels water down from the steep hills above the farm. Yet the lack of rainfall this year has caused springs virtually to dry up, and Michael’s water supplies are now very low. He wrote last week: “Water is about finished now and we jump from one improvisation to another.”
At the same time the government is enforcing power rationing on the national grid – so that only primary industries get constant power. As Blackburn is not in that category, the estate has only been supplied with power every second day. The farm runs off generators when the grid is out, but with the cost of oil soaring this is a major expense. Michael also mentioned that often power outages occur unexpectedly. This is nightmare if you are in the middle of processing coffee, particularly as sometimes there is then a surge when the power returns – which blows the machines’ motors entirely.
Although there is no official hunger crisis in Tanzania, food prices are nevertheless increasing across the country, fostering crime and unrest. With coffee prices also high, coffee farms are a tempting target – last week Blackburn caught several people picking its coffee during the night.
Michael fears that this year’s crop will be smaller than last year’s as the estate simply cannot pick and process all of its cherries due to the power cuts and water problems.
Despite all of these challenges, however, he assured us that “somehow we will come through”, and here at Mercanta we don’t doubt that Blackburn’s coffee will be as good as ever. Michael added that “my beloved clouds are coming”, which is good news for fans of Clouds of August…