Climate change hits Tana River mango farmers hard

A mango farmer at her farm in Kibusu village, Tana Delta.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

Mangoes have been a major cash crop in Tana River County for decades, benefiting more than 30,000 households.

It is a fortune that comes in two seasons a year, with November better than March owing to its bountiful harvest following the long rains.

Mango farmers harvest more than 50,000 tonnes a season and transport more than 35,000 tonnes to markets and industries in Mombasa, Garissa and Nairobi, while the rest is sold in local markets or left to rot on farms due to a lack of buyers.

This year, however, the mango crop yield has dropped by more than half due to the effects of climate change, leaving local farmers in distress.

"This time, it was not in our favour as we hoped. The rains did not fall and water levels in the river dropped immensely, and the trees failed to yield," said farmer Buya Jilo.

Tana River is among the counties most vulnerable to climate change. During the drought, temperatures fluctuated between 39 and 41 degrees Celsius.

The water supply ran short, damaging the mango crop and leading to low yields.

Farmers said it was rare to see bees doing their important work of pollination.

"There are factors that lead to a good yield. The moment we did not see the bees, we knew the season was headed for disappointment but still hoped for good yields," said Margaret Abio.

The poor harvest has hit farmers hard in Galole constituency, where even mangoes to sell to fruit vendors in the market have become rare.

The number of people hawking the fruit this season is small as demand for it rises.

Unlike Galole, a few farmers in Tana Delta managed to get a modest harvest after the short rains.

We can supply

"We had a few showers for about two weeks. The Delta became the fallback area for herders as our vegetation cover was good. Our mango trees didn't yield much, but we can supply," said Joshua Komora.

This has given farmers the upper hand in dealing with desperate brokers.

Unlike other seasons when middlemen used to exploit farmers by paying peanuts for the fruit, farmers are now calling the shots.

"They used to take a fruit at three shillings. You find them taking three big fruits at Sh10. This time, we are not desperate because the local market is in more need and therefore we dictate the price – a fruit for Sh7, take it or leave it," Mr Komora said.

This has affected transporters who usually deliver the fruit to markets and factories in Mombasa, Thika and Nairobi as they have to dig deeper into their pockets.

The influx of transporters has complicated the situation, and it is now a scramble for the fruit.

"When production is low, we also get hit. We have to bend to their demands, but that also means we have to adjust on the other end to be able to make a profit," said transporter John Waweru.

Experts advise that it is time for mango farmers in the county to change their trees and adopt a grafted type of tree that can adjust to climate change effects.

"This season alone is a statement to the mango farmer in Tana River County,” said Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service Officer Peter Yegon.

“It says it’s time for change because climate change is going to be here. Unless they change, the time is coming when even the little they boast of now will not be available from the type of trees they have."

The current trees are too old and were not designed for this climate, he added. Farmers need to adopt the grafted variety that has been tested and approved for the climate.

The grafted tree will yield a similar fruit but of greater quality, as it is resistant to certain pests and is good for the export market.

"This is a seedling that will take less than two years to start producing fruits. It is a guaranteed deal with better returns unlike the old variety that has been in these farms for more than eight decades," Mr Yegon said.

Meanwhile, mango farmers have said that if poor yields continue, they will get rid of the trees and pick something else more profitable.