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Kenyan tea production down amid fears of long-term impact of climate change

06 October 2011

According to press reports, erratic rains have resulted in a 16.2% decline in tea production in the first half of the year. According to the Tea Board of Kenya, production totalled ‘178.4 million kilogrammes of tea in the first six months of 2011 compared to 212.4 million kilogrammes in the same period last year’. Smallholder production fell from 124.3 million kg to 105.8 million kg, with plantation-based production falling from 88.1 million kg to 72.6 million kg.

While production has fallen, local consumption of tea has grown steadily (by more than 16% in the six months to June 2011) to some 10 million kg, as ‘packers intensified brand promotional activities to meet expectation of health conscious customers’ and the Tea Board of Kenya’s ‘sustained strategy of promoting tea drinking for better health’ continued to bear fruit.

Overseas markets for Kenya’s tea are also being diversified. Kenya’s main export markets in 2010 were: Egypt (93m kg); Pakistan (76m kg); UK (73m kg), Afghanistan (49m kg) and Sudan (31m kg). Kenya supplies around 22% of global demand for tea.

A new tea zone map for Kenya however is suggesting that the impact of climate change is beginning to have serious effects on where tea can be produced. It is expected that by the end of this decade major current areas of tea production will become less suitable, and by 2050 will no longer be tea growing zones. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture has warned that ‘the current tea growing areas in Kenya will change dramatically’. The Kenyan Tea Development Agency is working with the German Development Agency and the Ethical Tea Partnership on a three-year programme to prepare the sector on how to respond to climate change. 

Editorial comment

Tea growers, as for other agricultural crops, need to adjust to climate change and at the same time boost production to respond to growing demand. Since production is falling, prices in theory should increase, compensating for a loss in export receipts due to lower volumes. Some of these receipts could be devoted to financing irrigation schemes to keep tea production in current areas and introduce it in regions that do not yet cultivate tea.

Back in 2003, the Tea Association of Tanzania (TAT) embarked on research activities on crop water management, including drip irrigation and fertilisation of tea. The research was entirely demand-driven by stakeholders who agreed to financially support the Tea Research Institute of Tanzania (TRIT) through fees levied on tea sales. According to the World Bank, this was the first attempt at improving irrigation of tea and represented the largest experimental drip irrigation scheme in the world. The aim was to save up to 50% of water use, 85% of labour input and to increase yields by 21%. However policy shortcomings (high taxes and electricity charges), alongside droughts, made this project difficult to implement.

In 2009, a similar project was launched to pilot test appropriate irrigation systems for small-scale farmers aimed at increasing yields and the quality of products grown. Among different products and countries included under the programme, a drip irrigation scheme was tried out for tea at the Igoda Model Team Farm. However it became apparent that the investments required for this type of initiative were beyond the financial capacities of individual small farmers. As a consequence it was recognised that there was a need for better farmer organisation if production techniques in the tea sector were to be improved in the face of the challenges posed by climate change.

These experiences highlight the need for a multifaceted response to climate change, with adequate financial assistance being made available to promote their commercial application in affected communities. 

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