In June this year, the 4th African Tea Convention & Exhibition was held in Kampala, Uganda. Included in the line-up was a session on climate change. A global concern, it is of particular significance in Uganda where cash crops contribute significantly to the economy. Tea follows coffee and fish as leading exports from Uganda, employing more than 68,000 people directly and supporting the livelihood of at least one million.
In 2011, a report by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Columbia stated that if average temperatures rose by 2.3 degrees Celsius, as was expected, Uganda’s tea producing areas would see declines in production by 2020. And now, as 2020 approaches, the decline has begun. Temperatures are steadily increasing and rainfall is erratic. The latter is of particular interest to agriculturists, and the tea industry in a country that depends on agriculture and cash crops for its economy. With warmer climate comes increased precipitation during the dry season of December, January, and February. Projected precipitation is between -2% and +22%, with an increase in rainfall in the north and a decrease in the southeast. But an increase in rain during dry season affects perennial crops directly but all crops in post-harvest activities.
Of course, Uganda’s tea farmers have been well aware of the situation and have been trying to take steps to mitigate it. The Producers’ Foundation is educating growers about more resilient tea varieties, improving on-farm practices and encouraging its members to introduce appropriate practices as well, such as reforesting hillsides and protecting water sources.
The Kayonza Growers Tea Factory is a for profit community initiative in southwestern Uganda. In 2015, the group won the UNDP’s Equator Prize for Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change and Sustainable Livelihoods. Following the award, Gregory Mugabe, chairman of Kayonza’s board of directors said, “We started the climate change adaptation and mitigation among farmers in 2010 after our area experienced prolonged drought and destructive rainfall, which affected both food crops and tea farms. What made us win the award is how we integrated climate strategies in our tea farming systems.” In January this year, the Kayonza Growers Tea Factory earned the Rainforest Alliance certification, the first indigenous Ugandan institution to get this certificate, opening its access to international markets.
Much of the tea growing areas have traditionally been concentrated in the west and the southern regions, in the sub-regions of Buganda, Ankole, Kigezi, Toro, Bugisu and Busoga. In the recent past, Uganda’s resident tea expert Edwin Atukunda advocates the development of the northern parts of the country as tea growing areas. He introduced tea farming in Acholi in 2018, and has been working towards aggressively propagating tea growing in the north. The Edwin Foundation Tea Initiative offers tea seedlings for farmers and their website states that thousands of seedlings will be ready for transplanting with the first rains in April 2020. These northern areas, which are more used to growing food crops, struggle to take to cash crops like tea and coffee. But that is only part of the problem.
Concerns remain on whether the land, no doubt fertile and suited for growing tea is sustaining the changes that are afoot. Beatrice Lajara Kumago, the Coordinator for the Gulu and Omoro Districts Farmer Associations had expressed concerns that tea farming in northern Uganda comes with big challenges as the region once enjoyed heavy rains but now sees only intermittent rainfall because of forest degradation in the past decade. Southern Uganda enjoys two monsoons, the long rains between March-May and the short rains over November and early December. But northern Uganda receives a single monsoon between April and October. This year has brought average to above-average rainfall which has supported agriculture but already food crops are in shortfall as planting was delayed in northeastern Uganda.
Similar problems are being faced in the Indian tea regions as well. In the Assam valley, which produces 17% of the world’s tea, the annual monsoon is now competing with heavy wet spells, causing waterlogging and root rot.
Uganda’s unique location on the equatorial belt, is known to have a favorable climate for tea growing, with two rainy seasons per year. The tea plant, which was introduced in the country by 1900, had by the mid-1950s become Uganda’s main estate crop. It is believed Uganda has only exploited about 10% of its potential for cultivating tea with about 44,000 hectares of land under tea. A further 200,000 hectares is both available and suitable for tea. The industry is about 100 years old and Uganda ranks 12th among tea producers globally, and follows Kenya in second place among East and Central African tea producers. In 2018, Uganda produced 71,500 metric tons with this estimated to grow to 110,000 metric tons by 2021. Uganda primarily relies on tea exports, with only 5% of production consumed domestically.
But how will tea growers expand against the very real and tangible impact of climate change, even as exports struggle with low global prices?