By Kizito Makoye
KANJI, Tanzania, May 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the small village of Kanji, nestled on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Ludovick Meela is preparing to cut down the rest of the ageing coffee trees on his farm and replace them with vegetables.
"That is the best thing I could do to earn a living - coffee beans are no longer profitable as my harvests keep on falling," he rued. "I need fast-growing crops I can sell for a quick income."
The 72-year-old farmer from Moshi Rural district in Tanzania's northern Kilimanjaro region depended for decades on coffee farming. But climate shifts, together with a rust disease that causes trees to shrink and become unproductive, have decimated his yields.
Hundreds of farmers in the region are abandoning traditional cash crops, including coffee and cotton, due to climate stresses, falling prices and rising production costs.
Many have started planting vegetables and flowers instead.
"When my children were growing up, coffee was everything to me. I got a lot of income from it, which enabled me to gain economically, but all that is history," Meela told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Since 2011, the veteran farmer has shifted to cultivating vegetables on his nine-acre irrigated plot - including cabbages, onions, lettuce and Irish potatoes - and he keeps several dairy cattle in his backyard.
He believes these are a better investment of his time and money, and offer a brighter future than coffee.
"Demand for fresh vegetables and milk is quite large, and the market is promising," said the father of six.
Meela said local rainfall has become too unpredictable to sustain traditional crops such as coffee, tea, maize, beans and yams - a key reason for needing a backup plan.
Other Kilimanjaro farmers are also trying drought-resilient crops such as cassava and sunflowers.
A recent study by South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, which examined the impact of climate change on Arabica coffee production in the Kilimanjaro region, found that higher night-time temperatures were the main factor behind a significant drop in coffee yields.
For each 1 degree Celsius rise in the mean minimum temperature, coffee farmers were likely to lose around 137 kilogrammes (kg) of coffee per hectare annually, it said.
A March report from the Bank of Tanzania showed that the value of coffee exports dropped by 29 percent in the past year, and cotton exports by 33 percent.
The declining trend has driven many farmers to switch to more lucrative vegetables and flowers, while others are trying to earn money from non-agricultural activities.
Meela said inputs for coffee farming had become more expensive, while the coffee price offered by the cooperative union fluctuated.
He used to harvest up to 250 kg of raw coffee per hectare, which he sold for 2,500 shillings ($1.26) per kg. But yields have dropped to less than 100 kg per hectare, and the price to 750 shillings per kg.
Meela now sells his vegetables to local export companies in Arusha, giving his income a major boost.
One advantage of growing vegetables is being able to plant different types through the year. Meela's vegetable revenue averages some 3 million shillings ($1,512) every three months, he said.
COTTON OUT, ONIONS IN
Cotton production, which employs around 14 million people in Tanzania's northern regions around Lake Victoria and its central and coastal areas, is also in decline.
In Bariadi district in the north, hundreds of farmers have replaced cotton with onions, which produce more profit and are resilient to extreme weather.
Daniel Manyerese said he stopped growing cotton due to persistent drought that was affecting yields, alongside high production costs. Onions, on the other hand, are thriving and get a good price at the market, he said.
Horticulture crops are becoming a major source of foreign currency earnings in Tanzania. The sector's exports grew by nearly a fifth last year to $447 million, and now account for 38 percent of total agricultural exports, according to the Tanzania Revenue Authority.
Thanks to this success, some local experts say the trend for farmers to abandon traditional food and cash crops amid climate pressures is unlikely to threaten food security.
But Henry Mahoo, a professor of agricultural engineering at Sokoine University of Agriculture, said cross-border trade policies should respond to changing growing conditions in order to limit potential negative impacts.
For example, farmers in Tanzania's southern highlands produce surplus maize and rice in an area that borders Malawi and Mozambique, which have been hit by floods and drought this year.
"It is a question of government policy because very often farmers with surplus maize are not allowed to sell to neighbouring countries to meet their needs," Mahoo said.
(Reporting by Kizito Makoye; editing by Megan Rowling)
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