Last year’s short rainy season and a prolonged drought in East Africa is taking a toll on tea yields in the region. As the weather phenomenon La Niña continues to dry up the skies, many are predicting a bleak 2017 for tea production in Kenya and other tea-growing countries in the region.
Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority issued an Early Warning Bulletin in December. “The late start and early end to the raining season mean that yields are likely to be poor,” it states.
This is in stark contrast to last year’s bumper harvest of 426,000 metric tons, up from 352,000 metric tons in 2015, which led to a second straight year of improved earnings for Kenyan growers, helped by a stable exchange rate and high prices for tea in the world market. Kenya exports 25 percent of the world’s tea and is the third-largest tea producer (after China and India).
Although the growing season began with decent enough rainfall, a dry and unusually cold June signaled trouble ahead. These cold-weather conditions continued into July and August, reducing crop production so much that, according to tea broker Combrok Ltd, factories were cutting their plucking days to only three or four days a week to save costs. By the end of 2016, following several months of dry weather, crops were showing signs of deterioration. “The tea leaves are becoming dry and falling off,” said Johnson Irungu, director of crops in the Kenya Agriculture Ministry.
In Malawi, dry weather from June through August—when the drizzly “Chiperoni” rains normally nourish the crops—followed by record hot temperatures in October through November led to “a very short crop, with most factories ending up 15–20 percent down on average,” according the Satemwa Tea Estate’s Alexander Cathcard Kay. Malawi is Africa’s third-largest tea producer.
Rwanda’s tea-growing areas also experienced low rains from June through August, affecting quantity and quality of green leaf. Last year, its tea industry was impacted by a significant price drop for what is the country’s second largest export crop. Revenue from tea was $52.7 million in 2016, compared with $62.2 million the previous year. The country has plans to increase its tea-growing acreage by as much as 50 percent, however, the poor weather means that production outlook is not particularly good for 2017.
A report in last week’s The East African warned that both coffee and tea farmers face a tough year across the region. “Near flat” production and falling prices precipitated by a global increase in output, are combining to create a “turbulent year,” according to the article, which predicts a production decline of as much as 30 percent across the region.
“Although tea prices have improved at the Mombasa auction, production at the farms has fallen due to changes in climate,” said Kenya Tea Development Agency chairman Peter Kanyago.