By Rachel Friedman
In the cool, fertile highlands of the Rift Valley Province in western Kenya, the landscape is dominated by tea. Kenya is the world’s third largest producer and the leading exporter of caffeinated leaves, and the land around the township of Kericho and bordering the Mau Forest Complex is one of the country’s primary tea producing areas.
But recent projections by tea industry group Ethical Tea Partnership show that, without substantial action, climate change will render most of the Kericho-Mau area unsuitable for tea production by 2050.
In addition, more frequent extreme weather events and a rising demand for tea-producing land and for eucalyptus — a notoriously water-intensive tree and the preferred source of fuel for processing tea — contribute to further strains on natural resources, making switching to another cash crop or even subsistence farming a risky proposition for farmers.
If tea farming is to remain a viable venture for the residents of Kericho-Mau, then government, business, research institutions, and local communities must come together to determine how best to respond to the impacts of climate change.
Early steps have already been taken. Climate-smart agricultural practices are already helping farmers in the region adapt to and mitigate climate change as they shift to farming practices that increase drought tolerance along with yields.
In Kericho-Mau, the Rainforest Alliance is working with international non-governmental organisation EcoAgriculture Partners to determine how to apply climate-smart agriculture at a landscape scale so that the future of tea farming in Kenya can be secured in the face of a changing climate.
UNDERSTANDING THE RIGHT APPROACH
Taking a climate-smart landscape approach in Kericho-Mau means considering not only farm-level practices, but also a diversity of land uses and management strategies, overarching policy and governance, and market factors. All of these must be seen through the lens of enhancing productivity and improving food security, while also preparing the region for climate change and helping to prevent it.
The concept is sound, but many farmers, large- and small-scale, need more information on how to fund and implement these landscape approaches to climate-smart agriculture. To that end, the Rainforest Alliance and EcoAgriculture Partners developed a participatory assessment tool and conducted a feasibility analysis in the Kericho-Mau landscape to determine what steps could be taken to implement climate-smart agriculture on a landscape level.
Rainforest Alliance staff consulted representatives from smallholder tea farms and large estates, as well as government, NGOs, and other actors with a stake in tea production and/or climate-smart activities. They assessed what activities and support structures are needed to achieve a climate-smart landscape, what is already in place, and how much it will cost to do more.
In Kericho-Mau, multinational companies, research institutions, and government agencies are doing a great deal to address climate change within the tea industry. Commitments from the Kenya Tea Development Agency and multinational brands to certify their tea under the Rainforest Alliance Certified sustainable agriculture standards are an important step in these efforts. Moreover, institutions like the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya are working to identify best farming practices and disseminating results to farmers.
Yet there are still major opportunities to scale and consolidate efforts, and planning and management among all stakeholders at the landscape level is essential to increasing the efficiency and delivery of climate-smart landscape projects.
Opportunities identified include increasing climate-smart education and training initiatives, optimising fuelwood consumption and sustainably managing eucalyptus, as well as supporting a ‘community of practice’ to facilitate knowledge and technology transfers.
Funding these opportunities is crucial for tea farming to become more ‘climate-smart’. Blending new sources of climate finance with conventional public and private investment in agricultural improvement, research, and institutional strengthening is one possibility.
Despite the mix of large estates and smallholder plots within the Kericho-Mau landscape, big industry players have made the most headway and investment in climate-smart measures. Understanding the financial hurdles that smallholder tea farmers face in adopting climate-smart practices, as well as opportunities to overcome them, is the next step.
Ultimately, efforts to implement climate-smart agriculture must sync with industry needs and ongoing programs to improve tea productivity and the farm economy. The expansion of Rainforest Alliance certification in the Kericho-Mau landscape, among both tea estates and smallholders, offers that opportunity—one that can transcend the farm level to generate landscape-scale benefits.
And thanks to lessons from Kericho-Mau, the participatory assessment tool can help other communities determine the best ways to transform their landscapes into climate-smart landscapes.
Rachel Friedman is a program associate working on climate-smart landscapes for EcoAgriculture Partners.