Multinational tea firms go easy on mechanisation amid conservation bid

Finlays Kenya has mechanized the process of tea harvesting to reduce the costs of production. [Courtesy]

Large tea firms say they have refrained from laying off their staff in their quest to mechanise.

Instead, they are having the machines replace workers leaving employment through natural attrition.

The Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) said the strategy is part of their efforts to minimise job losses but also one that ties to their sustainability goals.

This means the companies now only mechanise areas where the workers leave due to factors such as retirement or in pursuit of other interests.

“In automating operations, there were no employees who were terminated or dismissed and only ordinary exits were replaced with mechanised operations. This has happened long-term and minimised the immediate loss of jobs,” said KTGA Chief Executive Lindah Oluoch.

“Indeed the overall impact of adoption of technology, due to increasing efficiencies, is reduction in the number of employees involved in these operations.”

While this has saved existing jobs, it may have had the impact of shutting out the youth from certain jobs in the tea estates.

KTGA, which is a lobby for large-scale tea firms, noted that while mechanising might see tea firms hire fewer people, the process is creating new high-paying jobs. 

“There is better potential for employment due to the skilled nature of mechanised operations, transferability of skills and better earnings. Mechanised operations also present opportunities for investment in industry,” said Ms Oluoch.

“Local capacity for production and maintenance of equipment are areas of growth, which overall, will open up employment opportunities. Additionally, many of those engaged in large-scale tea producers’ farms, prefer skilled jobs and through mechanisation, upskilling and capacity building have been enabled. Importantly, with the high cost of doing business owing to multiple levies charged on the industry, automation of operations has enabled Kenyan tea to maintain price competitiveness in the global markets.”

The approach to mechanisation, Ms Oluoch said, is among the strategies that the tea estates are employing in their quest for sustainability.

She noted that aside from improving crop husbandry systems and developing high-yielding tea clones that ensure efficient use of land resources, sustainability for tea farms also means avoiding scenarios where there are massive layoffs as well as providing a good working environment for workers. 

“For tea producers, sustainability also means sustainable and decent employment of workers through an inclusive, rights-respecting work environment and sustainable benefits and investments for the neighbouring communities and the national economy. This also includes sustainable tea markets for Kenyan tea,” said Ms Oluoch.

“As a responsible industry, large-scale producers remain alert to the obligation of business to ensure the preservation of the rights of employees at the workplace. Measures are therefore in place to comply with local and international labour standards in all areas of operations.”

She added that part of the industry’s sustainable agenda also entails engaging with local communities with initiatives that support water access, support to educational institutions and scholarships for higher education as well as financial empowerment of small-holder tea farmers and other community members.

“The industry has mainstreamed many sustainability practices, far ahead of other local industries,” said Oluoch.

“Tea farms have embedded environmental protection initiatives within the farms, practices such as wood-fuel sustainability, minimising environmental impacts of tea production while ensuring the preservation of biodiversity in the areas of operations of large-scale tea producers.”

The industry has experienced the vagaries of climate change, with the weather changes already affecting tea production. The droughts that are becoming frequent as well as the intense rains have had an impact on tea production.

“Climate change has affected tea through increasing incidence of droughts which lower the yield realised by tea producers and hence volumes of tea produced for export. Erratic weather also affects tea production by disrupting planting and application of the food-grade fertilisers used in tea production,” said Ms Oluoch.

“Increasing incidents of hail storms damage expansive areas of tea, such as witnessed in the last heavy rainfall season in late 2023... Increasing occurrence of frost also damages large areas of mature teas and results in higher costs of production,” she added.

Ms Oluoch also said large-scale tea producers have been making efforts in environmental restoration in their areas of operation.

These include the Mau Forest Ecosystem where tea producers in the Kericho region have been among the entities making efforts to restore the vital water tower.

In addition to forestry and wood fuel sustainability practices, she said, the industry has been minimising the use of food-grade fertiliser as well as manual management of weeds.

They have also over time donated tree seedlings in different areas across the country, including during the national tree planting day in November last year.

“As a key part of ensuring the sustainability of their operations, large-scale tea producers maintain tree nurseries in which seedlings for both contemporary and indigenous tree varieties are propagated.