How sustainable farming is key to thriving agricultural ecosystems

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A tea plantation in Tigoni, Limuru. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The Kenyan tea sector has presented itself as a robust and reliable performer in the economy.

One of the few sectors in Kenya that continues to demonstrate resilience even in the face of ongoing challenges posed by climate change, volatile markets and more recently, the ravages of Covid-19.

Total tea production in Kenya stood at 537.8 thousand tones in 2021 – earning the country Sh126.1 million in revenue, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2022 Economic Survey.

The smallholder tea subsector supports about five million people directly and indirectly while employing an estimated 650,000 growers. Its importance to the Kenyan economy cannot, therefore, be overstated.

However, with significant values at stake, it is now clear that business as usual will no longer suffice if we are to break away from a cycle of boom-and-bust periods for smallholder tea farmers.

Consumer demands are now shifting, with buyers seeking sustainable sources of supply – as well as high-quality products that deliver a premium taste.

This is in addition to the challenge presented by climate change which has resulted in shortened rainfall seasons and erratic weather patterns.

These factors have increased the urgency with which smallholder farmers need access to training and technical services across all facets of tea production, processing, extension, and sales.

To remain future-proof, farmers need to adapt their cultivation methods in line with these emerging trends.

They must embrace a more sustainable model of farming aligned with long-term environmental and social goals alongside financial needs.

This is important given that 10 percent of smallholder farmers have no other source of income beyond tea.

As such, they need to make every effort possible to get the best price for their tea and maximise competitiveness to secure a firm financial footing for themselves and their families now and in the future.

On the broader national level, the shift towards sustainable farming practices presents an opportunity for all stakeholders in the sector to leverage sustainability efforts, as part of a wider transformation strategy for tea farming and processing in Kenya, that will ultimately provide a boost for national gross domestic product.

It has become very clear to us at the Kenya Tea Development Agency that even the smallest changes can lead to great improvements in how tea-producing regions develop and flourish economically.

By making Kenyan tea production more sustainable, we are helping our farmers achieve their full potential in the medium term while contributing to the overall sustainability of the industry for future generations.

In this regard, we have implemented a number of initiatives that will entrench sustainability credentials across our operations – from both an agronomic and economic perspective – with a focus on ensuring a bright future for smallholder farming in Kenya.

These include diversification of the product offering to the market; investment in hydro-power stations (SHPs) which are a cost-effective means of producing electricity – especially in remote regions that are off the national power grid; and entrenchment of energy efficiency initiatives which have helped us reduce the environmental impact of our factories and improve global competitiveness.

In the same way, we have rolled out capacity-building programmes for tea farmers through the Holistic Economic Empowerment training with an aim of enabling them to produce better quality tea and diversify into other income-generating ventures.

The HEE curriculum includes training on better tea cultivation methods, social dynamics, financial literacy and income diversification to reduce overreliance on tea.

The program has so far benefitted more than 105,000 farmers who are now more knowledgeable about farming techniques that push yields up while limiting environmental impact.

At the heart of these initiatives is a core belief that developing a sustainable tea production system will enhance long-term yields, improve farmer livelihoods and safeguard the environment, while at the same time enabling farmers to earn more income.

The overall objective, however, is to improve the sustainability of tea production for both the smallholder farmers and wider value chain actors.

And in doing so, contribute towards global efforts to curb climate change and maintain decent wages for our tea farmers.

Sustainability is not a choice but an obligation. A thriving ecosystem is a bedrock upon which our long-term gains are anchored.

We owe our farmers, our children and our beloved country and the world at large to ensure that the future of farming is sustainable.

We will continue to passionately push our farmers to embrace sustainability in tea farming so that they can thrive in their own communities and beyond.

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