Like never before, the world has embraced avocado consumption, leading to a significant increase in new plantings. However, therein lies environmental challenges as some of these new areas expand into ecosystems where competition for resources occurs or they are considered as inappropriate for such a crop.
The conversation now is about climate action and sustainability, but what does this mean for Kenya and what is our role in this debate as to the seventh largest exporter of avocados. While other leading exporters engage in the conversation, we must also get our voices heard. Besides being listened to, we must continue to tell the world how we produce our fruit and allow them to compare and contrast with what others do.
Globally, the debate is about climate action, sustainable agriculture, environmental footprint, carbon sequestration and, very importantly, water use. Where does our avocado industry sit in this conversation? As a producing country, Kenya has some unique advantages that significantly contribute to the sustainability conversation. If we don’t tell our own story we run the risk of being miss labelled.
We may be the seventh largest exporter of avocados but we are still a pale shadow compared to other major players such as Mexico, Peru, Colombia and even the United States. Also, we should not forget that some countries are very large producers but have significant domestic consumption levels.
We have seen renewed international attention on the sustainability credentials of avocados and questioning if this super fruit has a justifiable place in our food basket of the future. We also see the emergence of standardised environmental footprint methodologies and standard parameters for describing what natural resources a crop uses. Based on this, the consumer can then decide whether to purchase a product or not.
Let’s look at water more closely, a favourite topic of mine as I started my career in irrigation agronomy in the tea estates of Tanzania’s Southern Highlands. The popular position is that avocados are very water inefficient and that the water used is often abstracted from environmentally sensitive areas. This narrative is used as a single truth to describe every avocado produced. It is an unfortunate truth and one that we must dispel.
The populist argument on water use efficiency is rarely expanded into fundamental scientific questioning: where does the water come from, what is the competition for this water, how much water does the crop need, what part comes from rainfall, and what is left to top up from irrigation.
There is a big difference between taking water from a fragile ecosystem to water avocados and capturing rainfall on your land in farm dams. As responsible producers we do the latter, but because we are not telling our story loud enough, we run the risk of being put into the same category as those that rely on fragile water resources.
A quick internet search later, and one is already seeing figures stating that a kilo of avocados needs around 283 litres of irrigation water. There is a body of published conference papers on this topic, however, there is no single comprehensive peer-reviewed scientific position. It also needs to be recognised that the assumption being made in this headline number is that all of this water is only used to grow fruit. The fact is an avocado tree is a significant tree in its own right, which, like all trees, is approximately 70% water. The popular narrative doesn’t account for this.
We apply 1,500 cubic meters of irrigation per hectare per annum in an average year.
To ensure alignment with best in class standards, at Kakuzi we work with the UK headquartered Carbon Trust which is an expert partner for businesses, governments and organisations around the world – helping them decarbonise and accelerate to Net Zero. As part of our work with the Carbon Trust to establish our carbon footprint we have carefully detailed all of our inputs and their corresponding emissions. Irrigation plays a part in this as we need power to pump water.
From our own numbers, based on the Rainfall and Evapotranspiration data for a mature avocado crop, we apply 1,500 cubic meters of irrigation per hectare per annum in an average year. Just to put that in perspective, the annual Crop Water Requirement for a hectare of mature avocados (based on our agro-ecological zone) is approximately 7,500 cubic meters per hectare. The vast majority of this is supplied from the rains.
Using rain water
If one then uses the inaccurate assumption that all of this water is only used to create a fruit and ignores the water used to grow the tree itself, our irrigation water use efficiency is approximately 88 litres of water per kilo of fruit harvested. But this is m*****g the point. The key questions are; where did this water come from, and what is the social-environmental impact of using this water for growing crops?
At Kakuzi, we have 19 earth dams which store approximately 12 million cubic meters of water. This water is from rainfall that falls on our environmental catchments and is held in our valleys by the earth dams until the dry season. By capturing the rain which falls on our land for use later in the year, we are not extracting water from fragile ecosystems or competing for resources with other users.
Indeed, at Kakuzi, we have gone a step further to seek process certifications for our avocado farming practices. Recently, we received the GLOBAL G.A.P. “SPRING” Certificate of Conformity, a farm-level certification that helps producers, retailers, and traders demonstrate their commitment to sustainable water management.
However, we must continue to develop our rain storage dams. Dams, however, will only fill with water if we preserve the catchments to allow them to do so. As we also plant more avocado orchards, we must ensure we don’t walk the same path as others. We must make sure we do not use water from fragile ecosystems.
Chris Flowers is the Managing Director of Kakuzi Plc.