La Roya’s Return: How Can Coffee Farmers Survive?

The following is a guest post from Heifer International. See the NCA First Pull guest post guidelines

By Marco Machado, Heifer International


Photo: Stephanie Parker, via Medium

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Orangish yellow blotches are starting to appear on the leaves of coffee plants in eastern Honduras, according to reports from the field. It’s a sign that the dreaded coffee rust fungus, or la roya, is making a comeback and endangering the crop that’s vital to the economies of Latin America.

Five years ago, an outbreak decimated coffee in the region, triggering a state of emergency and famine watches.

How bad will it be this season? It’s too early to tell. All we know is that the plant-choking fungus – first discovered in East Africa nearly 150 years ago – poses a serious threat to coffee’s future in the Americas.

As we search for a way to defeat the fungus, the coffee industry can help smallholder farmers build resiliency and deal with shocks from la roya – as well as from climate change, market swings, and other volatility common with cash crops.

This two-pronged strategy is based on the work my organization, Heifer International, has done with 13,600 coffee-growing families over the past 12 years in Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.

1. Productivity and Opportunity

The strategy’s first prong focuses on helping smallholder farmers boost productivity and stimulate new economic opportunities. More farmers need to adopt agroecological practices that minimize disease, improve yields, increase soil fertility, and curtail erosion.

Better mechanisms can be introduced to wash, ferment and dry coffee beans. Greater can be added with marketing, financial and entrepreneurship development. By owning the product farther along the value chain, coffee farmers reap greater rewards for their efforts.

Another important piece of the strategy’s first prong is working with cooperatives and other community organizations. They can help farmers get access to loans. They can also collaborate with government agencies, NGOs, and other groups to establish crop insurance programs and early-warning systems for disease. The majority of farmers working with Heifer in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru reported accessing funds from their cooperative to replant after the coffee rust outbreak in 2012-13.


A mother inspects coffee plants with her daughter in Honduras. Photo: Heifer International

2. Food Security and Diversity

The coffee rust crisis helped illustrate the value of the second prong of the strategy: improved food security and diversified farming. Heifer provided farmers with livestock – cows, goats and guinea pigs ­– and training in animal management. Seeds were provided for home gardens. The animals produced milk and meat, along with manure, which farmers used to fertilize the gardens. Families diversified their diets and earned income selling in local markets.

Beekeeping was introduced and proved to be an excellent complement to coffee. The initial cost of bees is low, the honey market is underserved, and introducing bees in coffee fields enhances productivity.

Cooperatives were also vital in the strategy’s second prong because they were supportive of efforts to diversify the financial base. They were especially key to honey production, helping to process and market the product. One cooperative in Honduras set up a weekly market where women’s groups sold their products for a premium price because they were organic.

Households improved the quality of their diets as measured by the number of food groups consumed. More than half of the farmers surveyed in a Heifer study said that because they diversified their agricultural products, they can rely on other income during wild fluctuations in the coffee market.


A beekeeper in front of his beehives near his home in Guatemala. Photo: Heifer International

Other findings from the study, “Ten Years of Coffee in the Americas,” include: 

  • Participants in Honduras increased their Household Dietary Diversity Score from 4 in 2011 to 7.2 in 2014 and 10.4 in 2016. The HDDS includes 12 food groups and measures how many of those groups are consumed over a 24-hour period.
  • In Peru, the average number of months of food shortage decreased from three in 2011 to two in 2016.
  • In Mexico, the Net Daily Income (which includes the opportunity costs of own labor and the value of home consumption) for participants was at $10.84, higher than the poverty line per family of $6.99. In Honduras, the NDI for participants was at $19.77, higher than the poverty line per family of $7.22.

Like everyone else in the coffee industry, I’m hoping we’ll eventually find a way to stop la roya. It would be disastrous if countries in Latin America had to give up on coffee, much like Sri Lanka did in the late 1800s.

But until the fungus is defeated, smallholder farmers need to keep investing in their farms and become better businesses. At the same time, they have to bolster their food security and diversify their incomes so that they can survive the lean months and the market shocks.

Read more about Heifer’s work in coffee: Ten Years of Coffee in the Americas

Marco Machado has been the country director in Honduras for Heifer International since 2006. He has nearly three decades of experience in the field working with economic development, cooperatives, agroecology networks, food security and livestock.


For more information on what companies across the sector are doing for sustainability, visit the NCA Sustainability Showcase.


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