It remains undeniable fact that a significant percentage of the population indirectly benefit from the tea industry. Records indicate that the industry supports over one million people. Against this background, if proactive research based interventions are not implemented on time, its collapse can lead to long term social-economic problems to the populace depending on tea and the country at large. Information sourced from TRFCA, other than generating a substantial source of forex for the country, the industry also employs over 50,000 people.
According to Chief Research Scientist for TRFCA, Dr.Nicholas Mphangwe, tea growers in Malawi such as Chitakale, Conforzi, Makandi, Naming’omba, Kawalazi, Thuchila,Msuwadzi, Chisunga and Mtendere tea estates including Zoa Smalholder Tea Association have been direct beneficiaries of research work by his institution.
Just as other industries have been badly hit by climate change the tea industry is no exception. Statistics indicate that at best Malawi made a record production volume of 52 million kilograms per year but the long term average dropped to 45-40 million kilograms of made tea per year. As climate change continues taking its toll on the industry Limbe auction floors sells between 10-15 million kilograms of processed tea per year.
“The major impact of climate change is on production. You find that when we have a drought there’s a drop in production at farm level as well as national level. As such growers are looking for ways to adapt to that kind of situation. Unlike other countries like India and China, Malawi has been generally free from major pests and diseases that affect the tea crop. Due to climate change, some of the pests and diseases are becoming so serious that growers are getting worried so we are also looking at a number of factors like how they can sustain improved production under stressful drought conditions and stressful high pressure pest and disease conditions,” said Dr. Mphangwe.
Dr.Nicholas Mphangwe in one of the nurseries for new tea cultivars
He further said growers need to invest in irrigation to mitigate the drought conditions.
• Volumes of processed tea have dropped from record high 52 million kgs to 40 million kgs.
• Increased pest pressure in some areas (Helopeltis, Thrips, Red spiders and Mites).
• Handling green leaf under extremely high temperatures affecting quality.
• Difficulties in scheduling some field activities such as fertilizer application.
• Only 2-3 per cent of processed tea is consumed locally.
Records indicate that initial tea planting was from seed imported from China and India. Due to its nature, seedling tea forms a variable population. To maintain uniformity of the crop in the field and to support tea growers mitigate impact of unfavourable climatic conditions on tea production, Dr. Mphangwe said TRFCA has been developing cultivars or clones. To date the organisation has produced 26 field cultivars, 10 Rootstock Cultivars and latest Progeny Cultivars 301-304.
TRFCA develops new cultivars to enhance tea productivity
in light of climate change
“TRFCA came up with the new varieties such as PC 122, PC 168 and RC 4,6 and 16 among others to enhance quality of yield and tolerance to extreme temperatures, pests and diseases. In addition as we all know nowadays people are health conscious, so the new cultivars have been developed to offer optimum health benefits as possible,” added Dr. Mphangwe.
Lapses in extension services forces TRFCA to visit tea estates and disseminate good agricultural practices and training smallholder groups to enhance productivity despite the challenging growing environment.
The developed cultivars comparatively have high yielding potential. In rain-fed conditions they can produce up to 3500 kgs of made tea per hectare while irrigated fields can hit a maximum of 4500 kgs of made tea on same land size.
Despite that there’s low tea consumption on the local market, TRFCA believes development of high quality cultivars with some distinct liquor colours, aroma/flavour will enhance tea sales on the local and international market.
“Tea growers are doing their best to adopt to the new research based technologies. This has seen an increase in adoption of new cultivars. As of 2014, 38 percent of tea land was under cloned tea. This is encouraging considering the challenges of no land for expansion and replanting exercises. This also extends to uptake of new practices for nursery, field or factory operations,” said Dr. Mphangwe.
Looking ahead the Tea Research Foundation promises to continue developing hardy/ climate smart cultivars that will allow the tea industry remain viable albeit the climate change challenges. The organisation plans to come up with diversified range of cultivars for black and green tea production.
Tea growers benefitting from research outputs of TRFCA
Tea research dates back to 1929. The objective then was to identify factors behind ‘tea yellows.’ During the colonial era Nyasaland Tea Association established 3 tea research stations: Mimosa, Swazi and Thyolo. As tea cultivation spread to other countries, Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa (TRFCA) was formed in 1966 and served tea growers in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. Currently TRFCA only supports tea growers in Malawi (estates and smallholders) in the fight against climate change.