By Esther Nakkazi
Uganda’s tea producers may well enjoy high yields but for a while as these will fall drastically if the latest climate change predictions come true.
The Uganda Tea Association raised its tea production forecast by about 9 percent for this year, attributed to use of fertilizers and more acreage put under planting the crop.
George William Sekitoleko the executive secretary of Uganda Tea Association said production would this year increase to 64 from 59.4 million kilograms last year. Tea export earnings are now on average about $100 million.
But climate scientists say a progressive rise in temperatures, which will be evident by 2020 and peak in 2050, would lead to increased attacks from pests and diseases and lead to steep declines in tea production in Uganda.
Overall climate will become less seasonal, with temperature in specific districts, increasing by about 1 ºC by 2020 and 2.3 ºC by 2050, said a report released last week by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
Areas that will retain suitability- the capacity of the crop to produce acceptable yields- will decrease by 20 – 40 percent, compared with today’s suitability of 60 – 80 percent, the study ‘Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda’s Tea Growing Areas’ says.
Tea is now Uganda’s second agricultural export earner after coffee and having overtaken fish, it is grown in warmer, relatively low altitude areas, to produce a bright, flavored and delicious tasty tea.
“If average temperatures rise by an expected 2.3 degrees Celsius by 2050, some of Uganda’s most lucrative tea producing areas could be completely wiped off the map,” said the study funded by the UK-based Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation and German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).
“Our tea depends on good weather and it has remained favorable. We have not had any set backs so far but if the predictions become true it will e very unfortunate,” said Sekitoleko.
Uganda’s tea industry, which produces some of the highest quality teas in the world, employs over 60,000 small farmers, and supports the livelihoods of up to half a million people.
Tea is mostly produced in the western part of Uganda, in the areas of Mpanga, Igara, Mabale, and Kayonza but the production area could be reduced to a narrow band of “marginal suitability”.
However, it says neighboring Kenya, where Uganda sells most of its tea through an auction market will not suffer as much. A study by CIAT released in June 2011 also showed the likely impact of climate change on tea production in Kenya, which also showed suitability take a serious hit.
Dr. Peter Laderach, a CIAT climate scientist on the team said the results were a ‘shock’. “We thought those from Kenya were severe, but in Uganda it’s even more serious. It is crucial to help minimize the risk to one of the country’s most important cash crops, and the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it.”
The report advises for climate assessments for possible alternative crops; like cassava, banana, pineapple, maize, passion fruit, and citrus fruits.
“Helping farmers find practical, productive and profitable alternatives is a great way of spreading the risk of tea production,” said Laderach.
He advised against the shift uphill into cooler, more suitable zones for tea production because it could result in the clearing of forests and protected areas at a significant environmental cost.
The results of the study are will be disseminated to farmers, policy makers and other interest groups in Kenya and Uganda to ensure action from all stakeholders.
The Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation has met with farmer groups from Uganda and Kenya to discuss the implications of the CIAT reports, and to encourage their involvement in developing sustainable options for adapting to climate change, and reducing the environmental footprint of tea production.
“Most tea farmers in East Africa are aware that the climate is changing,” said Programme Manager Kenny Ewan. “The report has certainly helped us to show farmers some of the science behind their local knowledge.”
The Foundation is encouraging smallholders to develop their own, locally appropriate, adaptation and mitigation methods. For instance they can reforest hillsides and protect water sources, as well as planting kitchen gardens.
They are also advised to introduce more resilient tea varieties.