Rwanda’s Tea Investment Must Plan for Long-term Climate Changes

(Photo courtesy of South South North)

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 kindof impact climate change is expected to have on the tea industry in this EastAfrican tea-growing hub.

Rwanda’s high mountainous countryside isideal for growing quality tea, with total exports now bringing in 15 percent ofthe country’s export earnings.

But rising temperatures and increasinglyunpredictable rainy seasons are threatening tea production here.

In the past four decades, Rwanda’s averagetemperature has increased by about 1.2°C, according to Alphonse Mutabazi, theClimate Change Programme Manager for the Rwandan Environment ManagementAuthority. This is faster than the global average increase.

Rwanda hillside (Photo courtesy of South South North)

The rainfall has been very variablebetween years, recently, resulting in some seasons having good tea harvests,and others having unexpectedly poor ones. These erratic harvests make it hardfor farmers and factory operations to plan, according to Mutabazi.

The threat to future tea production ispartly from the increased risk of flooding and landslides, linked with big rainevents. Lower-lying tea plantation areas are already fairly marginal forquality tea production, and rising temperatures will start to reduce thequality 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 qualitytea, particularly using current varieties and farming practices.

Tea growing, especially for high qualityteas, 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 creatinggreater uncertainty for the Rwandan tea industry, according to Paul Watkiss,who led a pilot project aimed at ‘mainstreaming’ climate change into the teaand coffee industries. But with the right planning that takes account ofclimate 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 theseactions 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 consideringlonger-term climate change when putting in new plantations. It can take fiveyears for new bushes to mature, and over ten years before producers see areturn on investment. But new plantations mean producers are locked in to theirinvestment decisions for decades, up to 50 years or more. New plantations needto be planned with this future climate in mind, and moved into higher-altitudeareas, where they will be more likely to produce good quality leaves severaldecades from now.

Rwandan tea (Photo courtesy of South South North)

Watkiss is working with the tea industryto ensure that it expands into areas that are suited to the kind of climate theregion will experience in the coming decades.

This also means planning across the entiretea value chain.

“There are many different parts to thesupply chain which need to be part of this planning process. This involves thelarge international companies, which operate the factories that process andsell tea into the market,” Watkiss explained. “But it also involves the smallholder farmers, which dominate tea production in Rwanda, who don’t have easyaccess to scientific information, and are more vulnerable to the changingclimate.”

Watkiss argues that this climateuncertainty should not be a reason for inaction, or a reason to reduce teainvestment in East African tea producing countries. With the right kind of informationand planning, the tea industry can respond and adapt. Rwanda has been able tofind international climate finance, to help start this process. Through thecountry's national climate fund (FONERWA), it is supporting the tea industry to adapt to thisuncertain future.

In parallel to the need to expand tea tohigher altitudes, there are other climate adaptation options farmers shouldconsider 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: GrowingRwanda’s tea and coffee sectors in a changing climate” by Hero productions and commissionedby CDKN and the Future Climate for Africa programme. It documents some of thesmart measures that farmers and estate managers can take to safeguard tea andcoffee crops – and people’s livelihoods – in the short to medium term. The filmpresents a pragmatic approach to climate-proof tea and coffee sector plans fromthe 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 documentingthe impacts of climate change on tea production in Malawi and Kenya that willbe released in the coming weeks.

The work coveredin this story is part of the Future Climate for Africa programme. This articlewas written by LeonieJoubert and is part of a series of stories by Future Climate forAfrica that looks into the research of the impacts of climate change on tea inEast Africa.