Avocado production and water sustainability

We produce our fruit better than many other global market players, grower says

By Chris Flowers 

The avocado fruit has over the last decade and more swept the world’s imagination and attention to an extent that it qualifies as an iconic superfood – most countries have 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 being considered as inappropriate for such a crop.

At the moment, the conversation is about climate action and sustainability, but what does this mean for Kenya and what is our role in this debate as to the 7th largest exporter of avocados in the world?

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 we have a fantastic story to tell. If we don’t tell our own story we run the risk of being miss labelled.

We may be the 7th largest exporter of avocados globally, 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.

In the last month alone, we have seen renewed international attention on the sustainability credentials of avocados and questioning if the 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.

As they say, there’s always the danger of a single story, and it is time to dispel the myth. If we 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.

Scientific questioning

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 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, 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.

Let me put a few numbers to this. A quick internet search, 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 that 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 as far as the percentage is concerned.

Kakuzi, for instance, works with the UK headquartered Carbon Trust which is an expert partner for businesses, governments and organisations – helping them decarbonise and accelerate to Net Zero. To establish carbon footprint, the company have detailed all its inputs and corresponding emissions. Irrigation plays a part in the move as the firm needs 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. A quick calculation shows that the vast majority of this is supplied from the rains. 

Forget the numbers, the key questions are; where did the water come from, and what is the social-environmental impact of using it for growing crops?

At Kakuzi, there are 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 for use later in the year, we are not extracting water from fragile ecosystems or competing for resources with other users.  

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 crops.    

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