Over the past decade and more, avocado has swept the world’s imagination and attention on levels of iconic superfoods.
Like never before, the world has embraced the consumption of avocados, leading to a significant increase in new plantings. However, there are environmental challenges here as some of these new areas extend into ecosystems where competition for resources occurs or they are considered unsuitable for such cultivation.
Today’s conversation is about climate action and sustainability, but what does that mean for Kenya and what is our role in this debate about the 7th largest exporter of avocados in the world.
As other major exporters engage in conversation, we must also make our voices heard. In addition to being listened to, we must continue to tell the world how we produce our fruits and allow them to compare and contrast with what others are doing.
Globally, the debate is about climate action, sustainable agriculture, environmental footprint, carbon sequestration and, very importantly, water use. Where does our avocado industry fit into this conversation?
As a producing country, Kenya has unique advantages that contribute significantly to the conversation on sustainability. We have a powerful voice in this global conversation as a nation, and we have a fantastic story to tell. If we don’t tell our own story, we run the risk of being mislabelled.
We are perhaps the 7th largest exporter of avocados in the world. However, we are still a pale shadow compared to other major players such as Mexico, Peru, Colombia and even the United States. Also, it should not be forgotten that some countries are very large producers but have significant levels of domestic consumption.
In the past month alone, we’ve seen renewed international attention on avocado sustainability credentials and wondered if this superfruit has a justifiable place in our food basket of the future.
We are also seeing the emergence of standardized environmental footprint methodologies and standard metrics to describe the natural resources used by a culture. On this basis, the consumer can then decide whether or not to buy a product.
As they say, there is always the danger of a single story and dispelling the myth is now urgent. If we take a closer look at water, it was one of my favorite subjects when I started my career in irrigation agronomy in tea plantations in the southern highlands of Tanzania. The popular position is that avocados are very water inefficient and the water used is often taken from environmentally sensitive areas. This narrative is used as a single truth to describe each avocado produced. This is an unfortunate truth and one that we must dispel.
The populist argument about water-use efficiency is rarely extended to fundamental scientific questioning: where does the water come from, what is the competition for that water, how much water does the crop have? does it need, how much comes from rainfall and what stays up from irrigation. If you must irrigate, we all know there is a big difference between taking water from a fragile ecosystem to water avocados and capturing rainfall on your land in agricultural dams. As responsible producers, we do the latter, but because we don’t tell our story loud enough, we run the risk of being lumped together with those who depend on fragile water resources.
Let me put some numbers to that. A quick internet search later, and you can already see figures indicating that one kilo of avocados needs around 283 liters of irrigation water. There is a collection of published conference papers on this topic, however, there is no single, comprehensive, peer-reviewed scientific position. It should also be recognized that the assumption made in this title is that all this water is only used to grow fruit. The fact is that an avocado tree is an important tree in its own right, which, like all trees, is made up of around 70% water. The popular narrative does not take this into account.
To ensure alignment with best-in-class standards, at Kakuzi we work with UK-headquartered Carbon Trust, who are an expert partner for businesses, governments and organizations around the world – helping them decarbonize 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 role in this because we need electricity to pump water. From our own numbers, based on rainfall and evapotranspiration data for a mature avocado crop, we apply 1,500 cubic meters of irrigation per hectare per year in an average year. Just to put that into perspective, the annual crop water requirement for one hectare of mature avocados (based on our agro-ecological zone) is approximately 7,500 cubic meters per hectare. A quick calculation shows that the vast majority of this is provided by rainfall.
If we then use the inaccurate assumption that all of this water is only used to create a fruit and ignore the water used to grow a tree itself, our irrigation water use efficiency is d approximately 88 liters of water per kilo of harvested fruit. But that misses the point. The key questions are; where does this water come from and what is the socio-environmental impact of using this water to grow crops?
In Kakuzi, we have 19 earth dams that store about 12 million cubic meters of water. This water comes from rainfall that falls on our environmental catchments and is retained in our valleys by earth dams until the dry season. By capturing the rain that falls on our lands for use later in the year, we are not extracting water from fragile ecosystems or competing for resources with other users.
Indeed, we at Kakuzi have gone the extra mile to seek process certifications for our avocado farming practices. Recently, we received the GLOBAL GAP “SPRING” Certificate of Compliance, a farm-level certification that helps growers, retailers and traders demonstrate their commitment to sustainable water management.
But we must not rest on our laurels. Across the country, 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 be careful not to follow the same path as others and in turn use water from fragile ecosystems to irrigate our crops.
We are seeing more and more avocado farms in Kenya that have embraced Kakuzi’s growing mantra of sustainability, quality and traceability and the fact is that Kenya has a great sustainable story to tell. We do not take water from fragile ecosystems to irrigate avocado trees, we do not displace wildlife or cut down natural forests to plant our crops, we do not have monopolies that control the prices paid to small farmers . But what we also don’t do, which is more important, is that we don’t tell the world enough about our history as Kenyan lawyers. We have to change that and be a lot louder and prouder because we are among the best.