Dispatch from African Tea Convention & Exhibition: Kenya’s sustainable tea farming vision

Tea estate with eucalyptus plantation_Caroline Irby 2009 (002).jpgBy Joseph Cameron Booth, Coordinator, Markets Transformation the Rainforest Alliance

The East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA) held its third African Tea Convention and Exhibition (ATCE) event in Nairobi in May. The global tea industry event brings together producers, NGOs, packers, retailers, traders, brokers, and blenders, and acts as a forum to discuss the hot topic issues in African tea and beyond. This year, the theme of the convention was “Sustainable tea farming – an inspiring future for nature, health, and rewarding livelihoods.”

Among the 20 international speakers and hundreds of participants were the Rainforest Alliance’s Per Bogstad, Senior Manager, Markets Transformation UK, Ireland, and India, and Joseph Cameron Booth, Coordinator, Markets Transformation. Following the sustainable tea farming theme, Per presented a session on “Tea sustainability – finding markets,” and represented the Rainforest Alliance in a panel discussion on “Tea sustainability—enhancing livelihoods.” The panel discussion sparked a lively debate about how the tea sector should prepare for the future, and the role that sustainable production can play. These themes ran throughout the convention.

Tea, Kenya’s principle export

Since the introduction of the first tea bush in 1903, tea has been an important crop for Kenya—from the establishment of large estates in 1924 to the beginning of smallholder cultivation in the 1950s and the subsequent formation of the KTDA (Kenyan Tea Development Agency) in 1964. Today, tea has gained status as one of Kenya’s principle exports, supporting over 10 percent of the Kenyan population, and a contributor to over 2 percent of Kenya’s GDP.

However, for all the success of East African tea, producers are now facing increasing uncertainty over their futures. Fluctuating tea prices, effects of climate change, the rising cost of production, political instability in key markets, changing consumer tastes, and global over-production are putting the future of East African tea producers in jeopardy. Now, more than ever, the African tea sector needs to collaborate to overcome these challenges and prosper together.

Success of KTDA sustainability initiatives with Kenyan smallholders

The conference focused heavily on smallholders, and the KTDA’s approach to smallholder management. This included the KTDA’s implementation of a successful sustainable agriculture program through their Farmer Field Schools, which has trained 15 percent of all KTDA farmers to date. The overall aim of the sustainable agriculture program is to upscale and embed sustainability into KTDA smallholder tea production. So far the results of the program have been positive; as one proof point, Wageningen University, a university and research center in the Netherlands, focused on “healthy food and living environment,” recorded in a study increased yield, improved worker health, improved environment, increased income and overall improved market demand for teas grown on Rainforest Alliance Certifiedᵀᴹ farms.

Another program that KTDA has fronted is an energy efficiency improvement program, which aligned with another key theme of energy reduction projects at the conference. Tea factories are heavily reliant on both electricity and wood to process tea leaves, so several small hydro-power plants are being constructed to generate green power for KDTA factories. Upon completion, roughly half of the factories will be connected to small hydro stations. However, wood remains the main fuel source for East African Tea factories, so another energy focus for the Kenyan Tea sector is to implement efficiencies to reduce the costs, carbon emissions, and deforestation associated with burning wood.

The changing demographic of the export market for Kenyan tea

Global consumption of tea is increasing. However, due to changing consumption patterns, there is a decrease in western markets such as the UK, Ireland, and New Zealand and an increase in parts of Asia and Middle East, such as China, Turkey and Afghanistan.

The changing market for tea is bringing new challenges and responses from producers: some of these increasing export markets focus less on sustainability and more on other attributes such as price and quality.

However, at the same time some growth markets are becoming increasingly aligned with western tastes and preferences, such as the manufacturing process called “cut tear curl” and tea bags. Hopefully, these countries will also adopt the western trend of sustainability. The Rainforest Alliance has begun making inroads and impacts in these economies, and will continue to focus on emerging markets as part of a long-term strategy to drive sustainable land use and livelihoods.

Leonard C Nduati, Factory Unit Manager (third from left) with (left to right) Edward, Joe, and Per of the Rainforest Alliance, at the KTDA Kambaa Tea Factory

The Rainforest Alliance and African tea: What’s next?

The Rainforest Alliance has long been a major player in East African Tea production. Over 750,000 producers and over 600,000 metric tons of tea are produced on East African Rainforest Alliance Certified farms ever year, and all KTDA smallholders are Rainforest Alliance Certified. With sectoral transformation and industry buy-in attained, one of the biggest questions Rainforest Alliance is facing in East African tea is “what next?”

Over the coming year, a major focus will be the roll-out and implementation of the 2017 Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) Standard. SAN 2017 incorporates a number of important mitigation strategies, such as Climate-Smart Agriculture, continuous improvement, and important deforestation criteria—all of which seek to improve and challenge the farms and farmers. Through this important revision, tea farms will work in several new areas that will help them adapt to a changing climate and further improve the long-term sustainability of the sector and industry.  The Rainforest Alliance will simultaneously continue to promote and help find markets for sustainably produced tea.



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