October 28, 2014


[Insect infestation threatens promising cash crop that could help to boost income of Nepal’s small farmers]

By Ian Bickis
Shiva Prasad Ghimire, 68, has about 250 plants now. He says he wants coffee plants
on all of his land, with a goal of 5,000 plants. Photograph: Ian Bickis
Shiva Prasad Ghimire waited five years for the coffee plant in front of him to start producing beans, but it took him only a moment to hack off a branch heavy with green and red coffee cherries. He had no choice. A tiny hole in the branch was an early sign that the tree was infested with a destructive insect called the white stem borer.

Left alone, the larva that dug the hole would kill the coffee tree, then morph into a beetle and lay eggs on the surrounding plants, continuing its ruinous cycle.
Unfortunately, that cycle is occurring across Nepal. After years of steady growth, the country’s coffee harvest dropped 12% between mid-2012 and mid-2013, to 366 tons of green beans. It recovered slightly, to 375 tons, over the next 12 months. The governmentand industry largely blame the white stem borer for the drop in production.

“[The white stem borer] destroys coffee orchards if we don’t manage our orchards well,” said Bal Bahadur KC, chairman of the coffee co-op in Lalitpur district, south of the capital, Kathmandu.
The beetle is proving a major hindrance to the growth of Nepal’s coffee industry, which otherwise holds huge promise for poverty alleviation in a country where three-quarters of the population works in agriculture and the GDP per capita is $730 (£455).

In Lalitpur district, the number of farmers growing coffee has dropped from 750 in 2008 to about 450, with the yield tumbling from 34 tons of green beans to roughly 16 tons.
Ghimire, 68, who lives in Chandanpur, a village in the district, is among the luckier ones. His farm sits high in the hills, so he’s less vulnerable to the beetle – also known as the Seto Gavaro – than his neighbours in the valleys. “In the lowland area where the climate is hot, it is difficult to grow coffee, and plants are badly affected by Gavaro,” says Ghimire. “But at this altitude, 1,500 metres from sea level, [there is] less risk from Gavaro, so we are happily planting and extending coffee here.”
But even Ghimire has to remain vigilant for signs of infestation, burning any infected tree limbs. There is no other option: pesticides aren’t effective, and either way Nepalese coffee is marketed as organic. There has been some progress with developing pheromone traps, but so far they’re unproven. The government set up a coffee research centre this year to try to develop better treatments, but there have been no breakthroughs yet.

Poor growing techniques have made things worse, according to Bhola Kumar Shrestha of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, who says coffee was introduced as a way to prevent soil erosion rather than as a cash crop: “Because coffee was not systematically introduced as a commercial crop, it was not planted with great care. Plants of those type have produced a white stem borer. In some districts it has been a big problem, and a challenge for us to manage.”

Shrestha runs the Helvetas coffee programme, which helps farmers grow and market their coffee crops. He is working to bring in technicians to train farmers in techniques – growing coffee in the shade, for instance, and managing soil moisture, since the beetles like hotter, drier conditions – to reduce the risk of infestation.
Farmers are also learning about more general growing methods to improve the quality of the beans, including irrigation, pruning, the best time to harvest, and how to handle and dry the beans after picking.
Every step is important, according to Gagan Padhan, founder of the Himalayan Java company, which has coffee shops across Nepal and also exports beans. “It’s a very, very technical thing – coffee’s a very sensitive product; if you don’t do it right, it’s just finished,” says Padhan.
One of the barriers to increasing production in Nepal, says Padhan, is that farmers aren’t prepared to divert more of the land they depend on for food to coffee. “They’re growing rice, there’s at least something to eat,” he says. “They grow coffee, there’s nothing to eat. Coffee’s something that, from the moment you plant it, takes five years for your first harvest.”
Coffee plants take up only a small part of most farmers’ land, which explains why – though about 27,000 households are involved in coffee farming (pdf) – the country only produced 366 tons in a year, equivalent to about 14kg of beans a household.

However, as farmers slowly increase the amount of land devoted to coffee, they’re learning that the increased profits are compensating for the loss of edible crops.
 “Coffee is more profitable than other crops, because from food crops I did not get much money,” says Ghimire’s 35-year-old son, Bishanu. “Most of the harvest I had to eat. When we sell coffee, we get cash and can use that on anything. Education for my son and daughters, healthcare, household activities.”
There is certainly potential for greater profit from coffee. In recent years about 1,760 hectares (4,350 acres) of land has been used for coffee cultivation in Nepal, but there are an estimated 1.1m hectares of land (pdf) available for coffee growing, according to Nepal’s export promotion committee.

The country need only look south to see what it could do with less than half that amount of land. In 2011, India produced 314,000 tons of coffee from about 410,000 hectares, for a crop valued at roughly $1bn (£623m) (pdf).

India is also afflicted by the white stem borer. Higher temperatures and drier weather has led to a huge infestation this year, and Arabica coffee production is expected to fall by 20%.

In Chandanpur, both generations of Ghimires are pressing on. Despite the beetle, they have committed to doubling their existing crop of about 300 trees. “We are small farmers so we can’t make that much profit, but we are trying to plant more than this so we can become larger scale, so we can get a better standard of life,” said Bishanu. “Coffee is better for my life.”