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Governor to probe 'secret' deals with tea companies

Kericho Governor Eric Mutai addresses the press in September 2022. [Nikko Tanui, Standard]

Kericho Governor Eric Mutai has vowed to dig into what he termed ‘dark secrets’ that have allowed multinational tea companies to thrive at the expense of the local community.

Among the matters Mr Mutai is seeking to investigate is how the previous regime paid over Sh100 million for a 10-acre land occupied by a tea company.

Mutai faulted his predecessor Paul Chepkwony under whose leadership the county paid for the purchase of the same land it had leased to the tea company, instead of instituting a direct requisition.

“How can you buy your own land from the person you had leased it to? The county government owns the land. This is a matter we want investigated afresh,” said Mutai.

According to the Auditor General’s 2017/2018 financial report, the county government purchased the 10 acres from Unilever Kenya, now Ekaterra at a cost of Sh102,256,000.

The land at Duka Moja, three kilometres from Kericho Town, was used for the establishment of Kimugu Water Treatment Plant funded by the German Development Bank (KfW) at Sh1 billion.

Mutai said there was need to unearth how leases for the expansive parcels of land occupied by the tea companies were renewed without consultation with the community.

“It is even shocking that the county government does not have the title deeds or documents on what is contained in the leases the companies hold,” said Mutai.

He regretted that the companies were not only underpaying their annual land rates but had also allegedly encroached on thousands of acres meant for reserved land.

“We shall institute investigations into how they encroached on 5,000 acres around their farms,” he said.

The governor spoke while commissioning an 11-member task force that has 60 days to collect views from various stakeholders on the mechanisation of tea picking in the county.

Labour unionists

Mutai said that the task-force which comprises of professionals, labour unionists and eminent persons will independently look into issues raised by the residents.

“Apart from doing away with the machines, we want the companies to pay at least Sh5,000 per acre in leases against the current Sh264. With that increase, the county shall collect at least Sh600 million annually against the current Sh50 million,” he said.

“We are not kicking them out but we must have dialogue on utilisation of the farms and benefits to the locals. They are profiteering enterprises in the middle of thousands of poor community,” said Mutai.

He lashed out at some Kipsigis elders who had taken issue with his decision, saying that he was acting in the best interests of the people of Kericho.

“It surprises me that some of our elders are opposed to our efforts to protect the jobs of their unemployed grandchildren. This is not politics but protecting our posterity,” he said.

Meanwhile, addressing the land sale issue at the Senate, former Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony said all legal processes were followed when the land was bought from Unilever.

“Our understanding is that Unilever is a private entity.  The county acquired the land after seeking advice from NLC,”  he said.

James Finlays Managing Director Simeon Hutchinson denied accusations that the company had encroached on the county’s land.

“The records are there. It doesn’t take a lot of skills to determine which tea company had encroached on public land,” he said.

Speaking in Maramara club over the land lease issue, Hutchinson said: “Certain people interpret the land laws which came into force at the promulgation of the constitution in 2010 to mean that the titles were converted to 99 years from when they were first issued. That is not the case. It’s very clear in the regulations that it is 99 years from the date of the promulgation of the constitution.”

Hutchinson added: “What hasn’t happened yet it the regulations governing the transfer of the titles. We noted in the press last week that the government started in Nairobi the process of amalgamating the four different legislation governing titles into one, we hope the process will be cascaded outside Nairobi. What is required is development of the regulations governing the process.”

A source said the multinational tea firms will present their views to the task force.