Helping Kenya’s tea sector adapt to climate change
Many of the two million tea farmers across Kenya are struggling to cope with the higher temperatures and more erratic rainfall brought about by climate change.
‘When I started tea farming, harvests were bountiful, but over the years the quantity has dwindled,’ said Joyce Njeri Muchina, a tea farmer in Makomboki, 90 kilometers north of Nairobi. In hot weather, ‘when the mist falls on the tea it burns the leaves.’
An ITC project is helping farmers to adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions along the value chain. The work is funded by the Governments of Denmark and Norway and implemented jointly with the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).
As a result of her involvement in the project, which started in 2012, Muchina has increased her annual income from tea by over 20% while also reducing fuel costs. ‘I could keep my children in school, I buy clothes more regularly than before and I have bought a dairy cow,’ she said.
While Kenya is the world’s largest exporter of black tea, lower yields due to rising temperatures are threatening the industry and the livelihoods of the three million people whose jobs rely on the sector.
‘If we continue doing business as usual we might not have tea in the next 20 or 30 years,’ warned Jane Ntambura, project coordinator at ETP. ‘The tea sector has really been affected by climate change and this means that productivity has been reduced.’
While Muchina’s income has increased over the past two years, it is still below what it had been before she began feeling the impact of climate change.
Muchina was one of 5,600 farmers who benefitted from ITC training programmes. Many of the participants were community leaders who subsequently worked with other farmers in their villages, transmitting the knowledge and techniques acquired through ITC training.
‘I have been taught about climate change. We have also learnt what we can do to ensure we are food secure and how to practice sustainable tea farming,’ she reported.
Techniques acquired include the identification of new pests migrating to the area as a result of the warmer weather and mulching – the covering of topsoil with dead plant material to retain the soil’s moisture content and fight heat-resistant weeds.
Participants also learned composting methods as well as techniques to improve the quality and water retention capacity of the soil by de-compacting hardpans, dense layers of soil that can impede root growth.
Importantly, participants learned techniques in drip irrigation, which requires as much as 70% less water than traditional methods, said Joseph Gitau, a trainer with KTDA. ‘There are many farming methods and the methods we were using needed plenty of water,’ he explained. ‘Since the rivers are drying up due to deforestation, we thought it wise to educate farmers on farming methods that use less water.’
Mary Njenga, a bio-energy and environmental scientist who comes from a tea-growing family in the region, spoke approvingly of the ITC-backed training work, praising it for effectively relating climate change to the work of the tea factory and the economic and environmental gains to be had from saving energy.
’[ITC] are doing a good job in working with tea factories to enhance their energy use efficiency, which will not only contribute to mitigating and adapting to climate change but will also improve farmers’ benefits,’ she said.
The ITC project has also fostered capacity building in implementing climate change mitigation strategies, reducing the carbon footprint associated with tea production.
Buyers in Western markets are increasingly demanding sustainably sourced tea. As a result, what was formerly viewed as a purely environmental issue is also becoming a market requirement. In order to maintain and expand their export markets, Kenyan tea factories need to demonstrate and eventually get certified for environmental sustainability, including a reduced carbon footprint.
Factories and the farmers who supply them have taken action based on energy audits prepared under the project, and obtained certification from respected authorities enabling them to target lucrative niche markets. The Makomboki Tea Factory, for instance, has been certified by both the Rainforest Alliance and Flo-Cert following the implementation of the audit’s recommendations.
‘On climate change mitigation, we have established what we are calling firewood sheds, so that we can dry our firewood before it goes to the boiler,’ said factory services coordinator Humphrey Maina Chiuri. Much of the firewood Makomboki and other tea factories buy is moist, leading to significant energy waste during the combustion process. They have also installed more energy efficient stoves and solar lamps. ‘Our factory is now certified… and we are able to access the international markets,’ he added, observing that the programme extends to the thousands of farmers that supply the factory.
ITC, which works with farmers, tea companies and the certification bodies, facilitated the partnership. ‘By working with this diverse group of actors we can ensure that we are providing a technically relevant response, but also one which is sustainable in its impact,’ said Rob Skidmore, chief of sector competitiveness at ITC.