Changing weather patterns are undermining the ability of smallholder producers in Malawi's southern region to grow tea, a crop that usually brings in 70 percent of their income, according to local farmers interviewed for a recent Fairtrade study.
The soils, climatic conditions and sloping ground of the area around the impressive Mount Mulanje, where most of Malawi's tea is grown, are well suited to the crop that supports up to 10,000 smallholder farmers.
However, data collected by the United Nations and a number of international anti-poverty groups, including Action Aid and Fairtrade, show that temperatures in Malawi are rising steadily, and more frequent droughts and floods are affecting more people.
In 2006 Action Aid found that from 1970 to 2006 Malawi experienced 40 weather-related disasters, with 16 occurring after 1990.
Before 2001 only nine Malawian districts were classified as flood-prone, but 16 were affected in 2001 and a further 14 in 2002. By the end of January 2003 there was localised flooding in 22 districts, causing eight deaths and damaging homes and crops.
Using statistics from the UN Development Programme, the University of Greenwich deduced in 2010 that the mean temperature in Malawi could be expected to rise by between 0 .5 and 1.8 degrees Celsius by the 2030s.
This would reduce the viability of tea at the lower levels of its current altitudinal range within the next few decades, according to Fairtrade. The organization will be presenting case studies about how a changing climate is affecting small-scale farmers across Africa at the UN climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, in late November 2011.
"In this part of Malawi we are meant to have rains from November to September, and that is very good for growing tea. Unfortunately though, the annual rainy seasons have been reducing in length, and the periods of drought have been increasing,” said Austin Changazi, a manager at the Sukambizi Association Trust, a cooperative of smallholder farmers with 6,300 members.
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"This means the plants are not producing as much leaf as they should, and on average our members' crop yield is down by about 15 percent," he said.
The changing weather has also brought an influx of disease and pests, the worst of which is an insect called Helopeltis, a mosquito-like insect.
"The adult lays its eggs on the tea plant and when they hatch they feed on the young tea leaves and tender stems, which dries them out and makes them useless. We probably lose between five and 10 percent of our crop to pests [every year], and the longer the drought period goes on the worse the problem gets," Changazi said.
The simultaneous occurrence of these factors is causing tea plants to die in alarmingly high numbers. "On average, a smallholder farmer used to be able to harvest 1,600 kg of tea per hectare, but in some instances we are seeing this fall to as much as 1,000 kg - this is a huge loss of income," Changazi said.
Big plantations cope better
A two-hour drive from the Sukambizi Association Trust, on the road to Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital, is the Satemwa Tea Estate, a company that buys green leaf tea from more than 170 smallholder farmers in the area.
Although the estate is also struggling with changing growing conditions, senior manager Chris Mazombwa says they are in a much better position than the farmers, who do not have the financial resources to withstand a bad harvest.
Photo: Bill Corcoran/IRIN
|Small-scale farmers and members of the Sukambizi Association Trust weigh their green tea leaf produce|
"We have been coming up with measures to try and adapt. We can afford some irrigation to make up for the poorer rain that we get, and we have embarked upon a replanting programme… that was quite big,” he said.
"The cost of replanting a field is in the region of [US]$5,000 and it takes five years before you can start harvesting. So although it is difficult for us, it is much harder for the smallholder farmer when you see the money needed to replant.”
Wilfred Kasitomu has been a small-scale tea farmer for over 30 years, regularly selling his crop to the Satemwa Tea Estate. "Because of this changing weather and the new diseases it brings, between 70 to 80 percent of seedlings we plant do not survive… [Those] that survive are just replacing the bushes that die each year,” he said.
With the harvests down, Kasitomu said, “Farmers can no longer send their children to school because we cannot afford the fees.
"Some people are starting to go hungry too. The lower income also means we cannot manage our fields as well as we used to, in terms of weeding and putting down fertilizers. The pests and diseases are also worrying us because we do not have the capacity to deal with them.”
Despite these setbacks the farmers are optimistic. "We are getting knowledge from Satemwa about how to adapt to the changing weather, and we have improved our environmental practices. The estate is helping us to establish our own nurseries so we can replant our crops at a lower cost,” Kasitomu said.
"We are trying to source seeds of indigenous and exotic trees that we want to plant in the area to improve the soil and attract more rain. It is possible for us to adapt to climate change if we get the right assistance,” he said.
"The problem is we cannot meet the costs of training, which is needed if we are to acquire the knowledge that will help us to adapt to the new climate patterns."