In Kenya, Tea Growers Adapt to Climate Change

How will changing temperature and precipitation patterns impact the tea industry in Kenya, the world’s biggest black tea exporter? And how is Rainforest Alliance certification helping Kenyan farmers to cope with climate change?

While promoting environmentally, socially and economically sustainable methods for tea production, the Rainforest Alliance is also introducing climate change adaptation and mitigation activities on farms to secure the long-term future of Kenya’s tea sector.

Mark Moroge—projects manager for the Rainforest Alliance’s climate team in New York—considers these issues in a new slide show. 


Kenya Tea Farm
Photo credit: Mark Moroge

For nearly a century, Kenya has been a tea powerhouse. In 2011, Kenya, the world’s largest black tea exporter, sold more than 930 million pounds (421 million kilograms) of tea, earning US $1.3 billion.

Much of this tea comes from an area west of the Great Rift Valley, where climatic conditions are ideal for tea production. For 10 months of the year, rain falls steadily—averaging 70 inches (1800 mm) of precipitation annually—and temperatures hover around 77° F ( 25° C) year-round.


Kenya Tea Farm
Photo credit: Mark Moroge

Smallholder producers and large estates are increasingly detecting variations in temperature and rainfall patterns. In recent years, the normal January to February dry spell has spilled into March. As of March 23, 2012, the rains had yet to fall in Kericho, Kenya.

These changing weather patterns have stressed tea bushes and hampered productivity, depressing income and delaying the cultivation of important staple crops like maize, beans and potatoes.

On this Rainforest Alliance Certified™ plantation, young tea bushes have been planted along the hill’s contour to reduce erosion and conserve soil. The brown parcels in the background are fields that have been prepared for growing staple crops.


Kenya tea farm
Photo credit: Mark Moroge

To learn how the Kenya Tea Development Agency* (KTDA) is addressing climate change and to see how the Rainforest Alliance is helping with this process, we toured the Kapkoros Tea Factory in Kericho.

The Rainforest Alliance is introducing tens of thousands of farmers in Kericho to sustainable tea production, and setting up a training and auditing framework to ensure continuous improvement through a network of lead farmers. In the field and the factory, workers enjoy better, safer and more productive working conditions.

*The KTDA oversees tea production for over 560,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya.


Seedlings from KTDA nurseries

Seedlings from KTDA nurseries in Kenya.

Photo credit: Mark Moroge

Seedlings from KTDA nurseries (commonly native species) are distributed throughout the local community for planting along farm boundaries, as buffers for waterways and forests, and to create small forest patches on farms.

These native trees store carbon—reducing climate change—and help farmers adapt to climate shifts by stabilizing the tea microclimate and increasing soil fertility. Planting native trees on steep slopes or degraded lands can also reduce vulnerability to heavy rains or prolonged droughts, helping to build farm resiliency to extreme weather.


Kennedy Mokaya, a KTDA production assistant

Kennedy Mokaya, a KTDA production assistant

Photo credit: Mark Moroge

During our tour, Kennedy Mokaya—a KTDA production assistant—explained the intricate relationship between tea and eucalyptus. Tea requires a continuous source of fuel to power the dryers used in manufacturing plants. For every 7.4 acres (3 hectares) of tea, factories need 2.4 acres (1 hectare) of fuel wood.

The KTDA is working to secure its own sources of sustainable fuel by acquiring land and encouraging its farmers to grow woodlots. The Rainforest Alliance is sharing industry best practice to reduce the amount of fuel consumed within the factories and leave more land for alternative crops or conservation areas.


Wetlands, Kenya
Photo credit: Mark Moroge

This wetland is an important source of fresh water for thousands of smallholder tea farmers. Downstream, its waters merge with the Mara River, which sustains the world-renowned Maasai-Mara National Park.

Its vegetation buffers are thick with native trees and ensure that the waterway stays clean. Eucalyptus is commonly planted for fuelwood in the region. However, because eucalyptus is a thirsty tree and planting close to waterways can dry out streambeds, the Rainforest Alliance and the KTDA are supporting farmers’ efforts to replace eucalyptus in buffer zones with indigenous trees.


Plucking tea leaves

David Cheruiyot demonstrates how to pluck tea leaves. KTDA tea is prized for its quality, largely the result of careful plucking; smallholders typically pluck only the top two leaves and a bud of each tea shoot.

Photo credit: Mark Moroge

Rainforest Alliance farmer field schools bolster KTDA efforts to ensure high tea quality and productivity. Our lead farmer system trains selected smallholder farmers, who instruct other farmers. Each lead farmer reaches an additional 300 farmers to ensure compliance with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) Standard required for Rainforest Alliance certification. The replicability, scale and local leadership component of this system could serve as a model for developing participatory climate change adaptation plans.


Tea growing patterns
Photo credit: Mark Moroge

To maximize productivity and reduce the risk of soil erosion, tea should be grown densely and uniformly. On many smallholder plots, there is an opportunity to improve farm incomes by filling in gaps with new bushes or “infilling.”

Infilling presents opportunities for improving productivity as well as increasing tea’s resiliency to climate change—particularly since the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK) has made its drought-tolerant, high-yielding tea varieties available to KTDA smallholders.

Through Rainforest Alliance certification and additional verification for climate-friendly practices, the Rainforest Alliance hopes to work together with these groups to pursue “win-win” opportunities that improve farmer livelihoods while ensuring sustainable tea production in a changing climate.


Kenya team photo

From left to right: Washington Ndwiga, Rainforest Alliance trainer; Jackson Kanyi, KTDA management trainee; William Bii, KTDA factory unit manager; Benard Ronoh, KTDA factory accountant; Kennedy Mokaya, KTDA production assistant; Mark Moroge, Rainforest Alliance climate projects manager.

After a long day of exploring the factory and local lands, the team relaxes for a parting photo.


Kenya tea farm
Photo credit: Mark Moroge

Throughout Kenya, temperature and precipitation patterns are projected to change. Fortunately, the local tea industry is already taking important steps to prepare for such climate shifts.

As Kapkoros demonstrates, there is great opportunity for the industry to adapt to climate change and safeguard tea productivity and profitability, while ensuring a sustainable livelihood for hundreds of thousands of smallholders.

Many thanks to the Kenya Tea Development Agency, in particular the staff of the Kapkoros Tea Factory, The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya and Partner Africa for their support.

Donate today

Help conserve forests and restore balance to our planet.

Make your gift go further (and greener) with a monthly pledge.