Agricultural productivity depends on the health of the ecosystem on which it is based. This includes biodiversity-driven services such as nutrient cycling, pollination and soil health. Key ecological functions are disrupted when biodiversity declines thereby increasing reliance of agricultural production on external inputs, intensification and land use change. The current coffee production in Kenya and most of Africa presents an opportunity to become more sustainable if environmentally friendly cropping systems are widely adopted. For instance, having systems that are based on renewable resources and natural processes such as maintaining complex vegetation structures in coffee farm landscapes can conserve montane biodiversity while increasing the socio-ecological resilience of the system against the harsh elements of climate change. Knowledge on nature and extent of the benefits arising from such cropping systems will however require understanding the complexities involved in a coffee farming context.

Complexity in coffee farming and land-use change

A land use is a modified landscape, usually natural ecosystems, modified for economic motivations. Changes in land use can lead to changes in land cover, which impact biodiversity and the suite of ecosystem services that underpin human well-being.  These changes also hold social, economic and ecological implications for human economies, security and health. The value of a land use therefore extends beyond economic measures to ecological and social sense, creating inter-dependency through a network of nested interactions. This makes land uses complex social-ecological systems, defined as complex adaptive systems that exhibit non-linear dynamics of emergent social and ecological factors.  Social-ecological systems underpin human well-being through interactions that generate ecosystem services such as crop production, flood regulation and erosion control.  Because of this relationship, they should be managed to prevent changes with negative implications on these very ecosystem services (negative regime shifts).

Coffee farming is a land use that plays an ecological role, holds economic value, support social structures and has cultural significance, for instance, coffee farming in Ethiopia.  Its production process feeds into a chain of local, national and international consumption and economic patterns. Certain ways of managing coffee farming has immense potential in biodiversity conservation, for instance, shaded coffee farming which not only offer habitat to the avian community, but also insects and other living organisms. The interactions of these individual components with one another makes coffee farming more than the sum of its parts, but rather the product of its interactions, hence a complex system.

Iburu coffee farming intervention reflects this nested interplay within ecological, social and economic dimensions. Located at the heart of one of the regions biodiversity hotspot, Mount Kenya, shaded coffee farms increase forest cover, provide habitat to different species of birds and regulate soil erosion.  Its production processes provide employments, invite social events and creativity, spark innovative ways of managing, together creating a sense of community. This system of production takes into account a systems thinking and systems way of doing; an idea that that all operational systems are intertwined and are a product of its parts, thus function with inextricable interdependency. And due to the linked interactions, any malfunction within its parts affects operation of the rest of its parts and ultimately the entire system. The farming practice therefore understands its system with an in-depth knowledge of the functions of its parts leading to the overall output of the system as a whole. This understanding holds potential development pathways as far as sustainable production and resilience of the system are concerned. This constitute complexity in the context of Iburu coffee.

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