In Uganda, coffee and banana go better together

Researchers from IITA found that the coffee production systems with the highest combined agronomic and economic potential were those that included banana trees as an intercrop. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)

by Caity Peterson

You're hungry for pizza. Walking around the neighborhood, you find two pizzerias not far from each other. They're both selling pretty much the same thing - crust with cheese and tomatoes on top - and at the same price. But one offers you a free delicious ice-cold 2-liter soda to go with your Hawaiian. That makes your choice easy, no?

Believe it or not, something similar is happening in Uganda. Only we're not talking about pizza, and the choice is a bit more complicated.

The comestibles in question here are two of the country's most important agricultural commodities. One, coffee, makes up 20-30% of Uganda's foreign exchange earnings and creates a cash boom for smallholders once or twice a year. The other, banana, is the country's principle staple crop, providing a small, steady food harvest all year long. In fact, Uganda was the 2nd largest banana producer in the world in 2008, and the 11th largest coffee producer.

By happy coincidence, both of these crops tend to grow at around the same altitude: from 800 to 2300 meters. Thus, considering growing human populations and farmers increasingly squeezed for space, it makes sense to grow them together, especially since coffee tends to produce more consistently when grown with a little bit of shade. Many farmers in Uganda are doing just that, intercropping banana and coffee to make good use of space in densely populated areas. Others are sticking with the old system or growing the two crops in separate plots, as used to be promoted by colonial extension services solely concerned with profits from the coffee cash crop and is often still promoted today, for apparent lack of a better option.

But which of these systems is actually the most beneficial for farmers? Until now, not much research has existed specifically targeting the relative advantages and disadvantages of different types of coffee growing systems. The result is that government agencies and other advisory bodies have trouble knowing what to promote, and farmers are even more in the dark.

Ongoing research by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Kampala, Uganda, in collaboration with other CGIAR centers (CIAT, ICRAF, and CIFOR), has attempted to evaluate the benefits of different types of systems, including co-benefits for climate change adaptation and mitigation and implications for pest and disease incidence.

Intercropping banana with coffee essentially doubles the value of a single plot of land. Revenues from coffee remain the same, but the farmer gains additional revenue and food security from the banana crop. Source: van Asten et al. 2011.

They have found that banana-coffee intercrop systems have the potential to be the most beneficial for farmers because they leave the yield of the coffee crop virtually untouched, while providing a little something extra in the form of more food for their personal use. Essentially, by combining the two crops farmers are greatly increasing the total yield value of a single plot of land, even if the yield for individual crops doesn’t change much. Bananas are to coffee crops what our free soda is to pizzerias – it doesn’t change the pizza, but it’s a nice bonus nonetheless.

Furthermore, including bananas in the coffee system spreads the farmers’ risk. If one crop fails or is decimated by a disease, they can still get a harvest from the other. Ugandan farmers have reported that the shade from the bananas also decreases their coffee’s susceptibility to drought and extreme weather events due to climate change. The residues from the trees provide in situ mulch which would otherwise cost them much capital and labor to bring in. They say bananas also motivate them to better manage their coffee crops during the first 3-5 unproductive years, because the bananas are producing even when the coffee is not. This is especially true for the female half of the community, which often doesn’t see the money from a coffee sale come back to the household but can use the banana harvest for home consumption.

There are trade-offs, of course. The intercrop system removes larger quantities of nutrients from the soil, and, in the long-term, coffee can eventually out-compete banana. The system can also require larger inputs of labor and capital at the outset. Accordingly, the success of intercrop systems will require identification of major production constraints – principally soil fertility – and the development of site-specific recommendations to address them.

Recently, the IITA team has been taking a more climate-centric focus to their crop system analyses, collaborating on the development of suitability maps for East African coffee crops, pests, and diseases and investigating the mitigation potential of the coffee-banana intercrop system. For more info on past and current IITA work in Uganda – and parallel projects on cocoa systems in Cameroon and Nigeria – check out the following resources:


Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, working on adaptation to Progressive Climate Change.

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