Handle carefully protests against large tea farms

By Editorial | May 28, 2023
When tea farmers from Tombe tea factory in nyamira county protested against the reduction of their  bonus amount. [Sammy Omingo, Satandard]

The destruction of property belonging to multinational tea companies in the South Rift is a matter the government must take decisive action on.

The raids and protests directly affect the local and national economy. They pose a threat to Kenya’s ability to attract both local and foreign investors.

At the core of the dispute is introduction of tea plucking machines, which the firms say has made tea picking cheaper compared to human labour. 

However, the move has proven unpopular among residents, politicians and trade unions since it led to loss of jobs totalling about 200,000 across counties.

Last week, rioting mobs destroyed tea plucking machines worth Sh175 million belonging to Ekaterra Tea PLC, a branch of Netherlands’ Unilever company which produces tea and other herbal drinks.

The rowdy youths also unlawfully picked tea from its farms and destroyed other property, including at the local KTDA office. While mechanisation was fronted as the main grievance, it has since emerged that the company, which was forced to suspend operations, was under pressure from 100 youths demanding jobs.

No one can force a private entity to give them a job. But this entitlement would not have been there were it not for the politicisation of issues around large tea plantations beginning with the campaigns leading to last year’s elections. 

The protests came despite a task force formed by Kericho Governor Eric Mutai to look into mechanisation of tea plucking and land under multinational tea companies, providing a way forward.

The team went round every sub county and met members of the public and different stakeholders, and has proposed a 60/40 per cent where 60 per cent is mechanisation and 40 per cent is hand labour in the tea companies.

On land rates where there is a case in court between Kericho County Government and the Kenya Tea Growers Association, the team proposes that the matter is resolved outside court. The taskforce has also proposed a national polytechnic be built within the multinational tea company’s land as part of corporate social responsibility. The land under the multinational firms should be resurveyed, for purposes of paying land rates and not chasing away anyone.

Looking at the bigger picture, the national and county governments must balance needs of residents and facilitate investors. They must not allow simmering grievances hamper development. Dialogue and implementation of regulations should always inform trade ventures where an investor is looking for profits while the resident should gain from local resources.

Still, Kenyans must embrace technology and evolve with the times. The future is increasing pointing to world where physical labour is being taken over by machines such as robots. We must not be left behind by this phenomenon. It is already here with us.

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