Why tea farmers should adopt sustainable agricultural practices

Labourers pluck tea at Bobaracho, Nyaribari Chache in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Kenya is the third-largest producer of black tea globally after China and India, and is the world’s largest exporter of black tea, contributing over 20 per cent of total world exports. The sector is therefore significant to the global and national economy. According to the Ministry of Trade, tea and horticulture are among the top export earners, contributing approximately 1.5 per cent to the National Gross Domestic Product in 2018.

Tea is Kenya’s principal agricultural industry and the continued viability of the sector is critical to Kenya’s rural economy. However, climate change is one of several issues that are threatening the future of the industry. Rising temperatures, drought, erratic rainfall and flash floods are taking a toll on the key tea growing regions, causing an adverse effect on the quality of tea and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in the country.

For many years, Kenya had the optimal climate for tea growing; tropical, red volcanic soils, sunny days and stable rainfall. Climate change has brought erratic rainfall, making floods and droughts more common. Temperatures are also rising, posing a threat to tea plantations carefully cultivated over many years.

A study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture of climate change impacts on tea production in Kenya up to 2050 estimated that with increasing temperatures and rainfall, optimal areas for tea production will decrease and production will shift to higher altitude areas.

Kenya has experienced a major shift in its rainy and dry seasons, which has forced farmers to change their planting seasons, resulting in reduced crop yield. Climate change, amongst other factors, has made tea-growing less viable for farmers in Kenya.

There is a need to adopt sustainable farming practices to help farmers and small and mid-size enterprises in the agricultural sector to adapt to the change in weather patterns. Sustainable farming practices that farmers can adopt include the selection of the most suitable areas for tea growing, crop diversification in low production areas, efficient management of soil and water resources, catchment protection, soil water conservation and rainwater harvesting.

James Finlay (Kenya) Limited is one example of a tea-growing company that has adopted climate-smart farming practices to withstand the shocks that come with adverse weather changes. 

The company recognises the value that sustainability brings to our business. Through our support for, and participation in environmental sustainability in the tea sector, we have embraced sustainable farming practices in our operations and have supported small-scale farmers in Kericho and Bomet counties. This partnership led to the formation of Fintea Growers Cooperative Union.

Through the union, over 10,000 farmers have been trained on good agricultural practices, conservation of the environment, good governance and crop diversification and have obtained Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade certifications. Through the training, smallholder farmers have been able to achieve higher tea yield per acre.

As part of our Group Sustainability strategy, Finlays has pledged to protect and enhance 100,000 hectares of natural forest by 2022 in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. By embracing an integrated landscapes approach towards sustainability, we have been able to establish a unique set of objectives that confront some of the most pressing tea sector challenges.

In contributing to this goal, the firm has partnered with the Initiative for Sustainable Landscapes to restore and conserve 60,000 hectares of the Mau Forest. ISLA is active in the South West Mau Forest. ISLA focuses on halting deforestation, forest conservation, water management, sustainable energy sources and sustainable livelihoods.