By Leonie Joubert
Heavy rains hit Murang’a county in south-west Rwanda in December 2015, causing landslides that took out over 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 to establish their young plantations.
These heavy rains are typical of the kind of impact which climate change is expected to have on the industry in East Africa.
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.
Even though Kenya is the world’s third largest tea producer, the quality due to erratic changes in drought, rainfall, hailstorms, high plucking rates and poor storage amongst other things makes the tea from Rwanda and Burundi’s small high altitude farms, superior.
But rising temperatures and increasingly unpredictable rainy seasons are threatening tea production in Rwanda as well.
In the past four decades, East Africa’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, but unexpectedly poor ones in others. 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 temperature can give a refuge and allow for future tea plantation development. These changes are also important for Rwanda’s plans to expand the tea sector to double.
Three major new tea factories are already under development by international companies, with investment of over $100 million.
But, climate change poses a threat to this kind of expansion. The future climate these plantations will be growing in, will be different to the conditions they’re planted in today. Producers need to plan with this in mind if they want to ensure high quality production.