Rwanda's high mountainous countryside provides an ideal environment for growing tea. In fact, exports now bring in 15% of the country's export earnings. And Rwanda wants to grow the industry, both in quantity and with an increased focus in quality.
But rising temperatures and unpredictable rains threaten tea production in the country. In recent years, rainfall has varied greatly: resulting in good tea harvest some years and poor harvests in other. These erratic harvests make it hard for farmers and factory operations to plan. A threat, too, comes from increased risk of flooding and landslides.
In the last four decades, Rwanda's average temperature has increase by about 1.2°c, which is faster than the global average increase. In the long term, lower lying areas are expected to become too hot to be suitable for quality tea, particularly with current varieties and farming practices. Tea growing - especially for premium, high quality tea - needs a relatively cool climate.
Planning tea plantations for the next 50 years
Changing climate conditions are creating greater uncertainty for the Rwandan tea industry, according to Paul Watkiss, who led a pilot project aimed at ‘mainstreaming’ climate change into the tea and coffee industries (Mainstreaming seeks to bring climate change projects together and integrate them into wider efforts, including in areas such as shaping government policy).
But with the right planning that takes account of climate uncertainty, the country can remain a leading export producer of tea, he says.
Existing plantations need to be managed to be more resilient to rising temperatures, and the increased risk of flooding and landslides, according to Watkiss.
Lower-lying tea plantations are already described as 'marginal' for quality tea production. Rising temperatures will reduce the quality of the tea from these regions in the short term. In the long term, such areas are projected to be too hot for growing quality tea, given current varieties and farming practices.
Future plantations need to be planned in locations that take account of a warmer climate - such as in higher, cooler regions.
"Tea producers need to think about these actions now, but also about further changes in the medium term, 20 years or so, and the longer term, up to 50 years," Watkiss says.
Big investments in major factories highlight need to plan ahead
Rwanda plans to expand its tea industry. Three major new tea factories are already under development by international companies, with investment of over $100m. But the changing climate 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.
Tea producers need to start considering longer-term climate change when creating new plantations. It can take five years for new bushes to mature, and more than 10 years before producers see a return on investment. But new plantations mean producers are locked in to their investment decisions for decades, up to 50 years or more.
New plantations need to be planned with this future climate in mind, and moved into higher-altitude areas, where they will be more likely to produce good quality leaves several decades from now.
Watkiss is working with the tea industry to ensure that it expands into areas that are suited to the kind of climate the region will experience in the coming decades. This means including a number of stakeholders from across the value chain.
"There are many different parts to the supply chain which need to be part of this planning process. This involves the large international companies, which operate the factories that process and sell tea into the market," Watkiss explains.
"But it also involves the small holder farmers, which dominate tea production in Rwanda, who don’t have easy access to scientific information, and are more vulnerable to the changing climate."
Watkiss believes this climate uncertainty should not be a reason for inaction, or a reason to reduce tea investment in East African tea producing countries. With the right kind of information and planning, the tea industry can respond and adapt. Rwanda has been able to find international climate finance, to help start this process. Through the country's national climate fund FONERWA (Rwanda is the first African country to set up such a fund) it is supporting the tea industry to adapt to this uncertain future.
In parallel to the need to expand tea to higher altitudes, there are other climate adaptation options that farmers should consider; such as shade growing, mulching, improved crop variety, conservation agriculture, and pest and disease resistant tea crop varieties.
The work covered in this story is part of the Future Climate for Africa programme, an organization which aims to reduce disruption and damage from climate change and to safeguard economic development and poverty eradication efforts over the long term.
The original article, from which this version is abbreviated, was written by Leonie Joubert and is part of a series of stories by Future Climate for Africa that looks at the research into the impact of climate change on tea in East Africa.