Kenya must innovate to safeguard her place in global tea market

Woman picking tea
Kenya is famed for its black tea - a product that is more oxidised than long, green and white teas. Black tea tends to be stronger than the less oxidised teas.

In its purest form, the Kenyan black tea is considered as one of the best in terms of quality. It is described as full-bodied, robust with a bold tea flavour.

So superior is Kenya’s tea that it blends other teas such as Earl Grey tea, English Breakfast tea, English Afternoon tea, Irish Breakfast tea and Masala Chai.

Due to its bold flavour, it goes well with milk and sugar too, however, to enjoy its best flavour, just mix it with water and a dash of milk. We are the biggest black tea exporters globally and third largest overall tea producer after China and India respectively.

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Climate change is one of the challenges tea producers are facing. Erratic rainfalls, the occurrence of frost and increasing temperatures all affecting the quality and quantity of yields produced. The amount of rainfall tea plantations receive is crucial since tea is a moisture heavy crop. The prolonged dry spell can lead to wiping out of the crop. Conversely, periods of heavy rainfall can lead to water stagnation which is detrimental to tea plantations.

Climate change

Tea producer’s vulnerability to climate change may be exacerbated in the future if nothing is done to mitigate the frequency and intensity of the changes.

Thankfully, stakeholders such as the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) are working tirelessly to mitigate and solve the challenges. KTGA through its members focuses on research and development of improved clones and appropriate crop husbandry technologies for improvement of yield and quality of tea produced. With tea being key to Kenya’s economy, we cannot afford to fall behind world standards, in terms of quality and output. It is with this in mind that producers have to be innovative in their growing, harvesting and manufacturing regimes.

Embracing technology enables the Kenyan tea to remain competitive globally. Tea prices have remained almost stagnant over the last 10 years even as production costs increased.

Hikes in the cost of essential inputs including fertiliser, energy, and transport, labour and warehousing are reducing earnings and holding back investments.

Tea producers cannot neglect quality as only good teas are competitive.  Since producers cannot set prices, they can only reduce costs and embrace modern technology. With labour being the most expensive component of production, tea producers need to adapt to avoid folding, which will lead to huge unemployment.

The cost of labour has been squeezing margins and life out of tea production, forcing producers to re-strategise on ways to remain operational and competitive. Employees expect wages to keep pace with inflation, which cannot be achieved if we continue to do things the same.

Productivity has to increase and as producers modernise operations to achieve this, the large-scale producers will always require thousands of employees.

Plucking technologies, which collect almost 20 times more tea in a day than manual labour, have enabled tea farmers in other world producers, whom Kenya competes with. Tea farms continue to employ and be a source of income for thousands of Kenyans. Working conditions in tea estates are some of the best in the agricultural sector.

Government revenue

They also get benefits such as paid annual leave, free health care, nursery and primary education, free clean drinking water, electricity and housing etc.

Vision 2030 places agriculture as one of the key pillars. The sector contributes more than 60 per cent of the total export earnings and about 45 per cent of government revenue. Tea production is the largest contributor to the agricultural sector. Agriculture has an indirect contribution of nearly 25 per cent of GDP through linkages with manufacturing, distribution, and other sectors.

It is imperative to preserve and protect agricultural sector, especially tea. The tea sector is the only export crop still stable and surviving. With Black tea being the most preferred variety due to its distinctive and diverse taste when consumed, this segment will account for the major share of the tea market throughout the forecast period. Kenya’s teas are pesticide free, a competitive advantage that is yet to be exploited by many other tea-producing countries.

black teaoxidised teaGreen teaWhite tea