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Kenya: Spirited fight by multinationals as climate change cuts tea volumes

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s growing Agribusiness

By Victor Amdala
Posted on Friday, 28 May 2021 10:01, updated on Thursday, 3 June 2021 05:02

A recent study on effects of climate change on the tea sector in Kenya - the world's largest exporter of black tea - has revealed several challenges related to changing weather patterns in the East African country that has seen farmers and multinationals seek alternative solutions.

“20 years ago, a visitor to Kericho would gladly ask for an extra blanket and not a swimming pool, especially at 6pm EAT,” a guard at Sunshine Hotel told me when I asked for the latter on 20 May.

Rolling a black button in his right hand, he laughed nervously for few seconds before engaging me in an unsolicited lesson on the climatic history of the region.

“I was born not far from here 62 years ago. The region was three times greener. Forests were thicker, you could barely see beyond two kilometres. Rain and cold was part of our lives,” he said with a lot of nostalgic happiness which was quickly replaced by tense silence and a light frown.

“The area is now prone to prolonged dry seasons and diminishing forest cover. People like you can now swim, thanks to warmer weather experienced at the beginning of the century,” he said.

It makes no point for multinationals to invest resources conserving environment only for another firm to release its waste in water and go unpunished or handled with baby gloves.

Although the attendant took long to respond to my inquiry about a swimming pool, his explanation was a sneak peek into the lurking climatic danger facing smallholder tea farmers and multinationals, not just in Kericho, but across the world.

The latest study on the effects of climate change on the tea sector in Kenya, by British charity organisation Christian Aid, reveals that the sector is facing a host of climate-related impacts such as rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, droughts and new insect infestations.

Rainfall more intense, less predictable

According to the survey, by 2050, the rapid shift in climate is forecast to slash Kenya’s optimal tea growing regions by 26%. Areas with medium quality growing conditions are to be cut by 39% in the next 30 years, due to climate change.

The report further shows that Kenya is highly vulnerable to climate change, with projections suggesting that its average annual temperature will rise by up to 2.5 degrees celsius between 2000 and 2050.

Going forward, rainfall will become more intense and less predictable. “Even the slightest increase in droughts will present major challenges for food security and water availability,” the Christian Aid report reads in part.

Another recent study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, commissioned by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, revealed that 700 growers in all seven of Kenya’s tea regions noticed changes in rainfall patterns, distribution, and reduced yields tied to climate change.

At least 40% of respondents said they had noticed changes in rainy and dry seasons, which led to shifts in the planting season, while 35% cited drought.

These glaring statistics are sending chills down the spines of tea farmers with some considering uprooting the crop for short term alternatives such as maize, beans, potatoes and vegetables. Some are however determined to keep growing tea and are taking cues from large plantations that already have mitigation measures in place.

Cutting trees, planting others

Ezekiel Kibet, one of 10,000 smallholder farmers under James Finlay in Kericho, tells The Africa Report that he has cut all the eucalyptus trees downstream and planted indigenous trees across his fragmented 10-acre tea farm in Kipsolo village.

“There has been a slight decline in tea production due to erratic rainfall in this region. I have been growing tea for the past 40 years. The negative change in production which I have experienced in [the] past decade is a result of prolonged dry [weather],” Kibet says.

Apart from tending to his own production, he religiously takes part in the community tree planting session organised by James Finlay – which has operated in the region since 1925.

“We plant at least 3,000 trees known for their water-conserving power in potential water sources. The company has noted unchecked dilapidation of indigenous Mau West Forest cover, which has been the source of rains that sustain multinational tea firms and smallholder farmers,” says Sammy Kirui, the corporate affairs manager at James Finlay.

He adds that the company continues to ride on technological advancement to champion sustainability, precision agriculture, use of biological energy in production and community involvement in conservation of forest cover.

“Our plantation is on 7,000 hectares. We have maintained the forest cover within our area of operation. James Finlay takes responsibility for any tree fell [cut] within our region of operation,” Kirui says, adding that a simple act of injustice on the environment threatens [future] generations.

His sentiments are echoed by Unilever Kenya that has the largest plantation in the region, measuring well over 10,000 hectares.

Producing less carbon

In 2018, Unilever East Africa partnered with waste management service provider Mr Green to unveil a ‘U-Turn waste project’, through which it aims to achieve a key sustainability target of creating a circular economy for all its packaging materials, especially plastic.

The move was in line with the company’s ambition of reducing its environmental impact as it progresses on the journey to ensure that 100% of its plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

“We are aware that climate change is accelerating fast and poses a risk to tea farming. As extreme weather and natural disasters persist, we are committed to mitigating and preventing future punishment by Mother Nature,” Unilever Kenya says.

The firm has been supporting the provision of clean cookstoves in tea communities, which traditionally use smoky and open fires, contributing to global warming and leading to indoor air pollution and respiratory disease, particularly among women and children.

In 2019, Unilever partnered with CrossBoundary Energy, an investment fund that specialises in financing off-grid projects for companies to set up a 619 kWp solar-powered mini-grid for tea processing at its plants in Kericho.

“The installation of solar energy at our Kericho site demonstrates our commitment to reducing environmental footprint,” says Sylvia Ten Den, CEO of Unilever Tea Kenya.

“We must act now to arrest future negative effects of climate change. There has been an astronomical change in climatic patterns not just in Kenya’s Rift Valley but everywhere in the world. While Africa is producing less carbon, the continent is highly impacted,” the firm said in its 2019 sustainability report.

Twinings Tea, which has been in operation for more than 300 years and sources its tea from smallholder farmers globally, including Kenya, is implementing its Sourced with Care programme that is fostering sustainability, including environmental conservation.

The UK-based firm works with local farmers in implementing environmental projects to compensate for carbon emitted throughout the supply chain.

Incentives and ‘better policies’ from government

According to Twinings Tea’s 2021 social impact report, Sourced with Care has reached up to 8,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya via its diverse partnership projects which has seen several tea centres receive internationally accepted certification.

While work undertaken by these multinationals and others like Tata are signs of environmental progress, local traders and environmental experts argue that the government must improve its environmental conservation policies.

Philip Rono, chairperson of FinTea Cooperative Union, an amalgamation of five cooperative societies in Kericho and Bomet counties, thinks that the state should come up with incentives or better policies to complement what farmers and multinationals are doing.

“It makes no point for multinationals to invest resources conserving environment only for another firm to release its waste in water and go unpunished or handled with baby gloves,” Rono says.

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