By Chris Flowers
The avocado fruit has, over the last decade and more, swept the world’s imagination and attention to iconic superfood levels.
Like never before, the world has embraced avocado consumption, significantly increasing new plantings. However, environmental challenges lie as some of these new areas expand into ecosystems where competition for resources occurs or is considered 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 the world’s 7th 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. We have a powerful voice in this worldwide conversation as a nation and a fantastic story to tell. If we don’t tell our own story, we risk being mislabelled.
We may be 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, we should not forget that some countries are very large producers but have significant domestic consumption levels.
In the last month alone, we have seen renewed international attention on the sustainability credentials of avocados and questioning if this super fruit has a justifiable place in our future food basket.
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 decide whether to purchase a product.
As they say, there’s always the danger of a single story and dispelling the myth is now urgent. 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 the crop needs, what part comes from rainfall, and what is left to top up from irrigation. If you have to 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 farm dams. As responsible producers, we do the latter. However, because we are not telling our story loud enough, we risk being put into the same category as those relying on fragile water resources.
Let me put a few numbers to this. 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. An avocado tree is a significant tree in its own right, which, like all trees, is approximately 70 per cent water. The popular narrative doesn’t account for this.
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. Kakuzi helps 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 the power to pump water. From our 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. 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. A quick calculation shows that most of this is supplied from the rains.
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 a tree, our irrigation water use efficiency is approximately 88 litres of water per kilo of fruit harvested. But this is missing 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. It 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.
But we should 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 ensure we don’t walk the same path as others and make sure we do not, in turn, use water from fragile ecosystems to irrigate our crops.
We are seeing more and more avocado operations in Kenya that have adopted the Kakuzi growing mantra of Sustainability, Quality and Traceability. Kenya has a great sustainable story to tell. We do not take water from fragile ecosystems to irrigate avocados; we do not displace wildlife and cut down natural forests to plant our crops. We do not have monopolies that control the prices paid to smallholder farmers. But what we also do not do, which is the most important thing, is that we do not tell the world enough about our Kenyan avocado story. We need to change this and be much louder and prouder as we are very much up there with the best.