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Rise of the machines inevitable

By | October 28th 2010

The article by the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union General Secretary Francis Atwoli (Machines Will Aggravate Joblessness in The Standard of October 22) was off the mark.

First, Atwoli says the quality of machine plucked leaves is inferior to hand plucked tea leaves. Since the inception of machine plucking a few years ago, research and good crop husbandry have improved the quality of machine-harvested tea.

Products like green tea, which sell based on catechin levels, are highly dependent on the rate of plucking to preserve the major chemical composition.

Tea harvesting machines are capable of achieving high standards of plucked leaf that compare favourably with hand-plucked leaves. The use of machines complemented by advances in tea processing technologies assures tea drinkers of quality product at all times.

The quality of both green and tea products is highly dependent on efficient delivery to factory. Green tea quality is best if delivered within one hour of plucking because biochemical reactions start immediately the leaves are separated from the tea bush.

Low temperatures

Research has also shown that the quality of black tea is improved for leaf delivered quickly, or plucked at night, to avoid loss of quality. Biochemical changes are also slower at night due to lower temperatures.

The loss of tea leaf quality as a result of slower plucking is purely due to uncontrolled and time-dependent bio-chemical changes and not as a result of young and energetic pluckers.

Other tea producing countries like Sri-Lanka, India, and Pakistan have been slow to adopt mechanical tea harvesting due to rough mountainous terrain where the tea is grown that makes it expensive and unsuitable to use machines.

Additionally, these rough terrains do not enable tea bushes to grow to the uniform height critical for efficient operation of plucking machines. In contrast, tea growing regions in Kenya offer excellent topography and growing conditions that are best suited for machines.

China and Japan are the largest importers of high quality green teas manufactured in Kenya from 100 per cent machine plucked teas leaves.

Tea quality

The quality of Kenyan green teas on high demand in China and Japan is what prompted companies like James Finlay to construct the only green tea processing plant in Africa.

Tea companies using mechanical harvesting machines have implemented several safety measures. Workers operating these machines are provided with sufficient and effective clothing to meet international industrial safety requirements.

The tea plucking machines also need people to operate, repair and service them. This does not at all eliminate the need to use human labour in tea plucking.

The future sustainability of the tea industry depends on adoption of appropriate technology. Rising wage bills and a resistance to mechanisation will combine to kill a vibrant tea sector that employs millions of Kenyan.

It is pretentious of the union to appear unable and unwilling to read the signs of the times.

Kipkirui K’Telwa - Sub Editor with The Standard

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