Why sustainable tea farming will be key to achieving social and economic targets

Kenya Tea Growers Association CEO Lindah Oluoch. 

Kenya’s tea exports account for about 26% of foreign exchange earnings.

Current climate change impacts and unpredictable weather pose a threat to the sector with increasing incidences of drought such as that experienced in the early months of 2023.

Employing sustainable farming practices to mitigate and minimize climate change impacts has become imperative for tea producers and farmers to ensure a sustainable tea business. The sector players acknowledge that economic sustainability, environmental protection, social investments and stakeholder engagement and inclusion are key to the sector’s continued growth.

In this regard, tea producers have historically embraced the adoption of sustainability standards as a critical part of their production activities and for large-scale tea producers and the smallholders supplying large-scale tea producers, sustainable tea production means sustainable crop husbandry systems, sustainable and decent employment of workers supporting the sector and indeed sustainable tea markets for Kenyan tea.

Some of the initiatives aimed at sustainability and inclusion that have been mainstreamed by the sector are forestry and wood fuel sustainability practices, minimal use of food-grade fertiliser and manual management of weeds; preservation of indigenous forests found within large-scale producers’ farms and collaborative efforts to protect the environment and forest zones such as Mau Forest and large-scale solar power installation. The sector has also invested in extensive research to attain high-yielding tea varieties that ensure optimum production in partnership with the public and private sectors as well as the community.

The benefits of the sustainability measures implemented by sector players are spread across various stakeholders. For example, tree nurseries maintained by large-scale tea producers enabled donations of thousands of tree seedlings including indigenous tree varieties during the National Tree Planting Day in 2023.

This underscores the value that tea producers can give towards the attainment of 10% national forest cover. Additionally, some 800 acres of the Mau Forest have been restored over a seven-year period, with efforts being renewed to ensure the protection of the Mau ecosystem, an important water tower for the Lake Victoria basin and its environs.

To ensure farm productivity, the sub-sector players have invested in research on improved tea varieties which produce high yields and enhance the economic viability of the farms. Well-coordinated re-planting of tea to replace old bushes that have decreased productivity is done through a structured program where soil testing and soil health are also ensured. A productive and high-yielding tea bush grown at the appropriate altitude ensures that the tea crop remains viable.

Through empowerment strategies and sensitization of smallholders, the benefits of sustainability practices maintained by large-scale tea producers are transferred to smallholder farmers benefiting some of the over 60,000 out-growers that supply green leaf to large-scale producers.

We believe that the tea sub-sector can only be sustainable if it secures sustainable benefits to the community and in this regard, large-scale tea producers invest in social programs regardless of whether they register profit for the business or not. The significance of the sector’s economic viability to social inclusion in tea-growing areas cannot be refuted. Aside from being a source of livelihood, tea enterprises support various educational, health, water and other social amenities in surrounding communities.

Environmental action on biodiversity loss prevention faces many barriers. However, in the tea sub-sector, efforts have been increased to sensitize the smallholders and communities to partner with government agencies such as the Kenya Forest Service to ensure the spread of awareness and to drive collective action.

Through minimal application of food-grade fertilizer, preservation of indigenous vegetation and forest zones within their areas of operation as well as continuous improvements in sustainable crop-husbandry, the Kenyan tea sub-sector provides a model for biodiversity preservation. Opportunity is therefore ripe to enhance the competitive advantage of our tea in the global market by mainstreaming the positive practices across both large and small-scale producers.

During the African Climate Summit in Nairobi themed ‘Driving Green Growth and Climate Finance Solutions for Africa and the World,’ African leaders agreed to work together to fast-track mitigation strategies to environmental degradation. Among the agreed goals is making agriculture more sustainable and promoting practices that protect the environment. Sustainable use of land, especially for a long-term crop like tea at a time when we’ve had to import more food, is therefore even more vital.

As a market leader in tea export and as a critical player in the agriculture sector, we have a great responsibility to engage in sustainable practices and even though the tea sector has put expansive investment in environmental preservation, additional incentives, both through clarity of policy and fiscal incentives is required to reenergize efforts in finding solutions that not only protect our tea but also preserve the environment for many generations to come.

-The Writer is the CEO, Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA)