Climate change is affecting the production of tea, one of the world’s most popular beverages.
The phenomenon is altering not only the taste, aroma and potential health benefits of the beverage but also the lives of farmers who grow tea.
In Kenya, some 60 per cent of the tea output is by smallholder farmers, whose average acreage is 0.5 each. These farmers, majority of them affiliated to the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), have limited economies of scale and are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The tea industry, a key feature of Kenya’s economy, faces an onslaught not just from climate change, but from other factors including shrinking land sizes, increasing cost of production, heavy taxation and a growing number of global market requirements. Of these, climate change remains the most vicious, yet the least talked about.
The climate in tea growing areas, just like everywhere else in the world, has changed considerably in recent years. It has become hotter and the rainfall patterns unpredictable.
To underscore the less obvious impact of climate change, Kenya’s tea earnings for the 2013/2014 financial year fell more than 30 per cent below the previous year mainly due to depressed prices at the auction. There was too much tea but few buyers.
KTDA, the country’s biggest producer, has attributed the increase in tea volumes to favourable rainfall and growing number of new farmers. As we enter the second half of the 2014/2015 financial year, prices remain depressed at the Mombasa auction.
In the last two weeks of November, for instance, a kilo of tea sold at an average of Sh201 ($2.24) against a high of Sh221 ($2.46) last year.
The weather has continued to be favourable in tea growing areas and production is higher than same period last year. Tea prices are on average 8 per cent lower as of October but production is 10.5 per cent higher.
According to a report by Kenya Tea Directorate, tea production for the month of September increased marginally by 1 per cent to 33.3 million kilos compared to 32.8 million kilos recorded the same period in 2013. The increase in production was due to high rainfall experienced in the West of the Rift Valley, particularly in Nandi, Kericho and Nyamira counties. Consequently production in the West, according to the report, increased from 19.1 million kilos recorded in September 2013 to 20.6 million kilos this year.
Already facing multiple challenges such as high cost of energy and labour, climate change poses a major threat to the industry, which supports more than four million people.
KTDA, working with bodies such as Rainforest Alliance, has launched programmes to sensitise farmers and employees on environmental issues such as water conservation. But the government now needs to set up a climate change research station to study the potential impacts of the phenomenon and develop future mitigation strategies.
The institute should deal with more complex issues by bringing in qualified human resource and investing in technology to monitor climatic change. The government must gradually move away from merely studying pests and diseases to helping tea growers respond and adapt to the changing climate.
This brings us to the issue of production costs, use of technology and deepening of markets. The cost of energy, for instance, will need to come down by at least 50 per cent from the current level to afford producers the leeway to invest in technology and diversification. Technology, on the other hand, will further bring down the cost of production while diversification will create employment opportunities by shifting jobs from other countries where value addition is done.
It is notable that majority of local producers have a competitive advantage in black Crush, Tear, and Curl (CTC) tea, which is packed in 50kg bags and shipped to Kenya’s key markets, mainly Egypt, Pakistan, the UK and Sudan. To break ground in diversification, the government should be involved both in deepening access to existing markets and breaking ground in new ones considering the global dominance of multinational tea companies.
The Ministry of Agriculture has publicly pledged to set up a stabilisation fund to cushion farmers from losses when prices are not favourable. The fund, if it becomes a reality, is a good start and can in future be expanded to cater for other industry aspects such as climate change and diversification.
Mr Gori is a communications expert based in Nairobi. [email protected]