Heavy rains hit Murang’a county in southwest Rwanda in December 2015, causing landslides that took out more than 2,000 tea bushes. Flooding also washed away a key bridge, which cut off transportation. The story made local news, with farmers raising concerns about whether they would be able to repay the bank loans they had taken out to establish their young plantations.
These heavy rains are typical of the kind of impact climate change is expected to have on the tea industry in this East African tea-growing hub.
Rwanda’s high mountainous countryside is ideal for growing quality tea, with total exports now bringing in 15 percent of the country’s export earnings.
But rising temperatures and increasingly unpredictable rainy seasons are threatening tea production here.
In the past four decades, Rwanda’s average temperature has increased by about 1.2°C, according to Alphonse Mutabazi, the Climate Change Programme Manager for the Rwandan Environment Management Authority. This is faster than the global average increase.
The rainfall has been very variable between years, recently, resulting in some seasons having good tea harvests, and others having unexpectedly poor ones. These erratic harvests make it hard for farmers and factory operations to plan, according to Mutabazi.
The threat to future tea production is partly from the increased risk of flooding and landslides, linked with big rain events. Lower-lying tea plantation areas are already fairly marginal for quality tea production, and rising temperatures will start to reduce the quality of the tea from these regions in the near-term. In the long-term, lower-lying areas are projected to become too hot to be suitable for quality tea, particularly using current varieties and farming practices.
Tea growing, especially for high quality teas, needs a relatively cool climate.
It is up in the country’s high mountains that relief might lie, where cooler temperatures can give refuge and allow for future tea plantation development. These changes are also important for Rwanda’s plans to expand the tea sector, which it intends to double.
Three major new tea factories are already under development by international companies, with investment of over $100 million. But the changing climate poses a threat to this kind of expansion. The future climate these plantations will be growing in will be different than the conditions they are planted in today. Producers need to plan with this in mind if they want to ensure high quality production.
Changing climate conditions are creating greater uncertainty for the Rwandan tea industry, according to Paul Watkiss, who led a pilot project aimed at ‘mainstreaming’ climate change into the tea and coffee industries. But with the right planning that takes account of climate uncertainty, the country can remain a leading export producer of tea, he says.
This means existing plantations need to be managed to be more resilient to rising temperatures and the increased risk of flooding and landslides, according to Watkiss. Future plantations need to be planned in locations that take account of a warmer climate in the future.
“Tea producers need to think about these actions now, but also about further changes in the medium term, 20 years or so, and the longer term, up to 50 years,” Watkiss said.
Tea producers need to start considering longer-term climate change when putting in new plantations. It can take five years for new bushes to mature, and over ten years before producers see a return on investment. But new plantations mean producers are locked in to their investment decisions for decades, up to 50 years or more. New plantations need to be planned with this future climate in mind, and moved into higher-altitude areas, where they will be more likely to produce good quality leaves several decades from now.
Watkiss is working with the tea industry to ensure that it expands into areas that are suited to the kind of climate the region will experience in the coming decades.
This also means planning across the entire tea value chain.
“There are many different parts to the supply chain which need to be part of this planning process. This involves the large international companies, which operate the factories that process and sell tea into the market,” Watkiss explained. “But it also involves the small holder farmers, which dominate tea production in Rwanda, who don’t have easy access to scientific information, and are more vulnerable to the changing climate.”
Watkiss argues that this climate uncertainty should not be a reason for inaction, or a reason to reduce tea investment in East African tea producing countries. With the right kind of information and planning, the tea industry can respond and adapt. Rwanda has been able to find international climate finance, to help start this process. Through the country’s national climate fund (FONERWA), it is supporting the tea industry to adapt to this uncertain future.
In parallel to the need to expand tea to higher altitudes, there are other climate adaptation options farmers should consider such as; shade growing, mulching, improved crop variety, conservation agriculture, and pest and disease resistant varieties of tea crops.
For more watch the film “Adapting Rwanda: Growing Rwanda’s tea and coffee sectors in a changing climate” by Hero productions and commissioned by CDKN and the Future Climate for Africa programme. It documents some of the smart measures that farmers and estate managers can take to safeguard tea and coffee crops – and people’s livelihoods – in the short to medium term. The film presents a pragmatic approach to climate-proof tea and coffee sector plans from the early design stage, through implementation and project finance.
Look out for the launch of Future Climate for Africa’s new video on their groundbreaking work documenting the impacts of climate change on tea production in Malawi and Kenya that will be released in the coming weeks.
The work covered in this story is part of the Future Climate for Africa programme. This article was written by Leonie Joubert and is part of a series of stories by Future Climate for Africa that looks into the research of the impacts of climate change on tea in East Africa.