Nkandu says 3mx1m spacing gives higher yields once science is applied/NUCAFE photo
Joseph Nkandu, the Executive Director of the National Union of Coffee Agribusiness and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE), is the man who introduced the 3mx1m Robusta coffee spacing method in Uganda.
He learnt about the method during his visit to Brazil a decade ago and decided to implement the same back home. Traditionally, farmers plant 450 trees of Robusta coffee in an acre at the spacing of three meters by three meters.
However, under the Brazilian method, coffee trees are planted at spacing of one metre apart and the rows are three meters apart, implying that a farmer can have 1,300 Robusta coffee trees in an acre.
Since its introduction in Uganda, the 3mx1m Robusta coffee spacing has remained an unresolved issue in Uganda, with critics saying it can’t succeed while those practicing it say it’s the way to go for all farmers.
A new study by Ugandan scientists at National Coffee Research Institute (NaCORI) and National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) says that while the 3mx1m spacing method gives higher yields, close spacing creates a lot of competition among Robusta coffee trees which compromises on their robustness attributes.
The results also show that there was high incidences of pests and diseases under closely spaced fields compared to widely spaced fields. The researchers say more studies need to be conducted before the 3mx1m spacing regime is recommended to farmers.
“It is our view that whereas yield potential is high at high tree densities, a detailed longitudinal analysis on the achievability of this apparent yield potential amidst pest, disease and abiotic constraints is conducted as basis for solid recommendation to farmers,” researchers say in the study.
The research was led by Godfrey Sseremba and assisted by Godfrey Hubby Kagezi, Judith Kobusinge, Pascal Musoli, David Akodi, Nicholas Olango, Patrick Kucel, Job Chemutai, Joseph Mulindwa and Geofrey Arinaitwe.
The study was imposed in July 2017 on already established farmer’s Robusta coffee fields at Bunjako Island, Buwama sub-county in Mpigi district.
“Specifically, aYH (average yield per hectare) was higher under close spacing (3mx1m) at 5.82 t cc/ha than wide spacing at 4.80 t cc/ha (3mx3m). The aYT (average yield per tree) was however, higher under wide spacing at 2.31 kg cc/tree than close spacing which generated 1.75 kg cc/tree. Similarly, higher number of berries per tree was observed under wide spacing at 6,934 berries per tree than close spacing which produced 5,241 berries per tree,” the study says.
Reacting to the study findings in an exclusive interview with Business Focus, Joseph Nkandu, the pionner of the 3mx1m spacing method in Uganda, said that the Brazilian spacing not only gives higher yields, but it also maximizes land and labour. He therefore encourages farmers to embrace the new spacing method as long as they do the right thing by applying Good Agronomic Practices (GAPs).
“I am happy to see that the findings about the two spacing regimes came out somehow balanced in a way that they eventually confirmed that with 3mx1m spacing, you get better yields and returns more than one can get from the 3mx3m spacing,” Nkandu said.
He added that he believes the researchers didn’t have enough time to make enough research “because the yields from 3mx1m following the Nkandu protocols would be more than 10 times than what they came up with. I know as scientists they tried within their own simulations, theoretically got a bit of things here and there and applied their models to get what they got. The principle of the matter is that the 3mx1m spacing still gives better yields than the traditional 3mx3m.”
Following what he calls ‘Nkandu protocols’, the NUCAFE boss says that he is able to get over 3,000 kilograms (3 metric tonnes) of green beans/graded coffee from an hectare per year. He however says to get over 3 tonnes from an hectare largely depends on the care and GAPs applied.
He says getting the protocols right is important. Asked about what his protocols are, Nkandu said: “What varieties are you planting? At planting stage, what fertilizers do you apply? At the growing stage, what are you applying? At five years, what are you applying? Different nutrients are applied at different times of the growth stage of the plant. It’s all about application of science in farming. This is the time to apply science.”
He says that there are many scientists and farmers that aren’t applying science.
He says: “My protocols are about application of science and looking at the plant and what it requires at each stage in life. I don’t mind the size of acreage; I mind about that particular tree. Productivity of that particular tree. You need to know all the varieties and how they behave. How do I deal with the canopy of the bush? How do you manage it?”
He adds that water and irrigation are also key.
“The application of water is important; the plant requires water. Do you know how much water that plant needs? Not many people care; we don’t do irrigation here (in Uganda); we do watering. Irrigation is calculated, it’s targeted, the quality of water is also important. How long the plant stays with water is also key. The management of weeds should also be taken seriously. These are the protocols I’m talking about,” Nkandu says, adding that Israel which is in the desert is performing well in agriculture and exporting more food than many countries with good soils and water because it’s applying science in farming.
On the high infestation of pests under 3mx1m as reported by the study, Nkandu says that when the coffee wilt disease and black coffee twig borer attacked the coffee industry, the 3mx1m spacing was not yet in existence in Uganda.
“So, it defeats my understanding why they emphasize the infestation on 3mx1m without putting much emphasis on what happened before. The point is that regardless of what spacing regime you choose, you have to manage pests and diseases,” he says, adding:
“Let’s be practical, someone who stays alone in the house gets sick and they go for treatment. In the same way, people who are crowded in a house get sick and they have to sick medical treatment. At the end of the day, it is about management in whatever circumstances. It requires management for the two spacing regimes. When you don’t care and arrest early enough the pest or disease, it will affect you. It’s about management.”
On the assumed high cost of establishing an acre under 3mx1m spacing, Nkandu says in investment, amortization is important.
“This coffee is going to stay for 50 years. People forget about amortization. In two years, you are starting to harvest, in 4th or 5th year you are into big bumper harvest, why not go for it? That’s why I invite people to come and see how this spacing regime is working for me and other farmers embracing it. If it wasn’t working for me or other farmers who have embraced it, we should have abandoned it already,” Nkandu says, adding that the canopy can still be managed beyond six years.
He says the sector needs people who are practical to do things.
“If you are in a certain position, try to be as practical as possible. When you go to Brazil, the institutions that are in the coffee sector, they are managed and run by practitioners. They don’t regard them as being run by civil servants; if I am the Executive Director of NUCAFE, do I have a farm? Do I know what other farmers are going through? Do I put myself in the shoes of farmers or I am like a traditional civil servant who says ‘I’m knowledgeable about this and therefore do as I say’. We have to change this and be practical,” he says, adding that he has for a long time promoted the farmer ownership model that tries to eliminate middlemen and he has led by example; NUCAFE has set up a a multi-million factory in Namanve that does coffee milling, grading and roasting. He encourages farmers not to sell ‘kiboko’ but graded coffee.
He says over 200,000 farmers are embracing the 3mx1m spacing method.
“Many people had lost hope of planting coffee but with 3mx1m system, even people with one acre are planting coffee. Others are doing it quietly including big companies and individuals in this country. Others have decided to adjust the spacing to 3mx1.5m and 3mx2m. For me the principle remains, reduce on the traditional 3mx3m spacing because we don’t have luxury of land and the population is growing rapidly,” he says, adding that the 3mx3m spacing had become a culture and over a period of time, people believed that the only right spacing of coffee was 3mx3m. “For them they believe coffee shouldn’t come close to each other but coffee is a forest crop. It is meant to come close to each other. In Brazil, when you look at the rows, the coffee is entangled all the way. We have to modernize the culture. What we lack here is mechanized farming,” he says.
Asked about the specific challenges he faces using the 3mx1m spacing method, Nkandu says he hasn’t faced many challenges save for the constant criticism from some coffee stakeholders.
“As a person who introduced the 3mx1m spacing regime, I had to allow people to criticize me, but on the ground, I have not had a challenge. I have managed the pests and diseases well. In other words, I take it as a business. The moment people realize that regardless of the agricultural enterprise you are engaged in that you have to dedicate time to it, we shall begin to see a revolution,” he says.
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