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Kenyan tea producers battle climate change

by Frank Nyakairu | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 30 November 2009 11:51 GMT

MERU, Kenya (AlertNet) - Michimukuru's tea is considered top quality on the world market.

From the remote hills of Meru, 300 kilometers (187 miles) northeast of Kenya's capital of Nairobi, packets of tea bags find space on the shelves of London's top supermarkets.

And for the 9,000 farmers in Michimikuru, tea is almost the sole source of household income and one of the East African country's major cash crops.

But the tea farmers here are worried as increasingly scarce rainfall is changing the fortunes of the village.

"We have been losing a lot of harvest over the last three years because of inadequate rainfall," said Andrew Ethuru, one of the major farmers in Michimikuru.

In 2006, the region exported 19 million kilograms of tea. By last year, the total had fallen to 13 million kilograms.


"We don't expect that trend to change this year. The rains have been ever scarcer," said Ethuru who is also the director of the Michimikuru tea factory.

But with help, tea producers are launching a drive to adapt to climate change, something many scientists expect will hit Africa hard.

Aid agencies say five years of drought is driving more than 20 million east Africans toward hunger and destitution.

Rainfall in the region is increasingly erratic, shorter and more violent. Unusual weather events - including storms, drier spells and fluctuating temperatures - are happening more often.

Farmers also say winds and storms have gotten stronger.

All of that is hurting tea production. Though Kenya's Meru district is not among those hardest hit by Kenya's erratic weather, tea farmers say the changes are slowly taking away their major cash crop.

Tea, they say, is among the crops that cannot survive erratic rainfall, and is vulnerable to drought.

The United Kingdom's leading Fairtrade hot drinks company, Cafedirect, buys the majority of MichimikuruÂ?s tea, which is in turn mainly distributed across the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Fairtrade is an organized social movement and market-based trading approach that aims to help producers in developing countries and promote sustainability by paying a higher price to producers as well as promoting high social and environmental standards.


Though Cafedirect hopes to increase its trade with MichimikuruÂ?s farmers, Anne MacCaig, the organizationÂ?s chief, said she was concerned about the impact changing weather patterns were having on the crop.

"A factory losing 30 percent of its output annually is a big concern to us and if farmers don't try adapting to these changes now, they are likely to lose more business in future," said MacCaig, who visited the Michimikuru factory this month.

On top of losing part of their cash crop, farmers have watched rivers running through the green hills of Michimikuru either disappear or narrow over the years. As a result water is increasingly scarce.

Farmers say some of the reduction may have come as a result of former forest cover, which once attracted rainfall, being converted to tea fields.

With funds from Cafedirect and the German Technical Corporation, farmers have started the AdapCC project - a series of community actions that they believe will ease the impact of unpredictable weather. They include diversification of food crops and income sources, improved soil management, tree planting and energy efficiency efforts.

A small hydropower station that supplies power to the tea factory and some of households in Michimikuru depends on seasonal river flows and sometimes leaves the community dependent on diesel-generated power.

To counter that problem, villagers are considering an ambitious wind power project. A local technician has spent years studying the possibility of installing a wind farm.

"A wind farm is highly possible here. We have more than enough wind speed to generate power," said Japheth Bulali, an engineer who has visited Scotland to study wind power.

"We can reduce the cost by making locally improvised still windmill towers and blades. All we will need are turbines and power control systems from the west," he said.


AdapCC - the acronym stands for Adapt to Climate change - has also helped tea factories in the region cut their power consumption by 30 percent in one year by installing energy efficiency controls to cut the use of firewood in processing tea. Efficient cooking stoves, which use less firewood, are also being popularised in the village.

Ethuru, the factory director, said the drive to maximise profits from booming tea production had led to the depletion of more than half of the forest cover in the village.

"So we have started a tree planting campaign that includes school children and the eldest oldest member of this community," he said.

The village has also passed a law to stop cultivation of crops on river banks and formed a group of volunteer river scouts to enforce it.

But one of the oldest scouts, Steven Muala, 76, warned the effort might not be effective in stemming a problem that is regional, national and global as well as local.

"We hope to make a difference on the changing climate but without other communities joining as well, this might all go to waste," he said.

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