Tea pickers in Michimikuru, Kenya

Sustainability concerns for Kenyan tea

Published:  28 December, 2009

The frenzy over high tea prices in East Africa could be disguising more long term, structural shifts in production of the commodity, as climate change and local environmental degradation weakens crops

The steep slopes of the tea fields in Michimikuru, Kenya, extend for miles in a long green expanse that is swept intermittently by heavy showers. The area, about 300km north of Nairobi, and close to the town of Meru, shows little sign of the drought that has paralysed agriculture in much of the country.

In Michimikuru, tea growing accounts for 80 percent of household activities and 90 percent of family incomes. The Michimikuru Tea Company has around 9,000 small-scale growers farming an area of just under 2,000 hectares, clustered around the factory, one of 60 operated by the Kenyan Tea Development Agency. Once the factory’s own estate is factored out, the average size of a household tea farm is around half an acre. The company was certified Fairtrade in 2007, guaranteeing a higher than average price of $1.50 per kilo for farmers, as well a social premium to aid local development.

However, the relative prosperity of the region is threatened, and the current state of the fields hides the fact that late short rains have already seriously curtailed production. Just 10km away on all sides is semi-desert, leaving Michimukuru as a yellow-green oasis in an increasingly arid landscape. At the factory, managers worry about the encroachment of the desert, and, struck by worsening droughts, production has been reducing by, on average, 30 percent per annum for the past 3 years.

Captain Andrew Ethuru, a retired air force officer who has farmed tea for 30 years and sits on a number of local and regional tea boards, says that in the past decade the pace of change has accelerated, with increasingly erratic rainfall and a greater incidence of parasites. Malaria, too, is on the rise in the area, as increased temperatures allow its vectors to survive at higher altitudes. Higher prices for tea in the final quarter of 2009 have done little, he says, to offset the reducing revenues over the years.

The structure of the Michimikuru Tea Company – a smallholder-owned cooperative – means that there are serious social concerns attached to such falls in productivity, as decreasing yields also affect edible crops being grown alongside tea in smallholdings.

Tea typically grows in a relatively narrow band of elevated areas close to the equator and as such it is vulnerable to long-term climate change. In Kenya, which produces 70 percent of African tea exports, the Climate-Land Interaction Project and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast increases in temperature between 1.5 and 3°C, as well as considerable variations in rainfall and intensifying weather events, be they droughts or floods. If this happens, some tea growing areas could no longer be viable. This, clearly, would have lasting economic and social impacts, not just in Michimikuru, but across the whole of Kenya.

“What we are seeing in the Michimikuru area is not peculiar to that area,” says Esther Magambo, assistant director of agriculture and head of land use and environmental management at Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture. “These are the kind of effects and impacts you see in the rest of the country. In the traditionally dry areas of our country, such as the North Eastern province and parts of the coast, it’s even worse”

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