Kericho tea wars: How politicians pitted locals against multinational

Some of the tea shades that were set on fire diuring last week's protests at Ekaterra tea in Kericho County. [Courtesy]

In the run up to last year’s elections, some leaders used the long-standing land dispute between large-scale tea firms and local communities as a campaign tool.

They promised voters that they would push for them to get back their ancestral land and outlaw the use of tea harvesting machines.

Sometime in May last year, Kenya Kwanza leaders during a rally in Kericho town assured workers in tea estates that they would review the use of mechanised tea harvesting machines if they formed the next government.

National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula and Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot led other leaders in declaring war against tea plucking machines.

Wetang’ula was accompanied by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.

“Tea workers have been left on their own. We, however, pledge that the Kenya Kwanza government will outlaw the machines. Employment opportunities for tea pluckers must be restored. Our business will be to create employment opportunities for ordinary citizens,” he said.

Kericho Governor Erick Mutai, Cheruiyot and MPs Nelson Koech (Belgut) and Joseph Cherorot (Kipkelion East) argued that the use of machines was to blame for the high unemployment rate and economic stagnation.

Cheruiyot promised that their first agenda when they form the government would be to outlaw the use of machines.

Koech said the deployment of machines had caused a slump in the local economy by an estimated 20 per cent.

“If the multinational tea firms want to deploy tea harvesting machines, it should be only for 30 per cent of the work and 70 per cent left to the pickers,” said Koech.

The Belgut MP said the National Assembly should set the maximum percentage of tea that should be harvested mechanically to avert further job losses.

Azimio leader Raila Odinga, while in Kericho in July last year, joined hands with Central Organisation of Trade Union (Cotu) in the fight against mechanisation of tea harvesting.

He spoke during a rally at Kericho’s Moi Gardens.

Raila promised to compel multinational tea firms to resume hand-plucking of tea if elected.

In Bomet, Konoin MP Brighton Yegon led the onslaught against  multi-nationals.

“The negative effect of mechanisation is serious and I am demanding that the companies should rescind the decision,” he said.

Bomet Senator Hillary Sigei threatened to initiate laws barring the companies from using machines.

Sigei said while the move was good for the companies it was bad for locals.

The push for reforms in the tea sector continued even after the elections.

In October last year, during a thanksgiving service in Kericho attended by President William Ruto and his deputy, leaders pleaded that mechanisation of tea farming be done away.

The president, his deputy, and other leaders from the region said tea-picking machines and lack of value addition were the biggest headaches in the sector.

“The youth are complaining about these machines because there are no other jobs. In Kericho and nationally, we must re-look at tea and coffee sectors to create more jobs,” said Ruto.

Gachagua said tea-picking machines had brought so much suffering.

“During our economic forums, it was clear that the problems of Kericho County start and end with the tea machines. We shall have a forum to find a solution. We shall not be leaders who complain but those who offer solutions for the president to make informed decisions,” said Gachagua.

Bomet Governor Hillary Barchok has since backed down on the war against mechanisation of tea harvesting.

“It is upon us to look at the matter and choose whether to kill multinationals and destroy the existing job opportunities or encourage them and have the locals supply goods and services,” he said.

In October last year, a task force on large-scale tea producers and other stakeholders in the tea sub-sector was gazetted.

In March this year, the task force, in a report, recommended 60:40 ratio of machine harvesting to hand plucking. The report revealed that technology would not be done away and called on Kericho County Government to negotiate with the large-scale tea producers and other tea sub-sector for a win-win situation.

The leaders on Wednesday condemned recent attacks on multinationals and called on the locals not to take the law into their own hands. They warned the residents against  vandalising property but instead follow the right channels to have the matter addressed.

“We as the leaders from the two counties shall work as a team and with the multinational tea companies on the matter and others until a lasting solution is reached,” said Cheruiyot.

The senator called upon youth to abstain from any act of violence and instead use the right channels to air their grievances.

“We know these machines have rendered many people jobless but we have the right avenues to address such matters and not destruction and looting of property,” Cheruiyot said.

He said the issue, if not addressed, will spill to other sectors.

“If the matter is left unchecked, investors will shy off citing insecurity,” he said.

Mutai said the people and leaders of Bomet and Kericho counties should work together towards finding a lasting solution.

On Monday, the governor tried to calm down protesters, at Brooke Trading Centre but his convoy was stoned by a mob.

Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union Kericho Branch Secretary Dickson Sang in a statement said there is a need for the multi-national tea companies and workers to embrace dialogue.

“We know the challenges posed by tea-picking machines and we have appealed to our lawmakers to outlaw the use of tea-plucking machines and save the economies of Kericho, Bomet, Nandi, Nyamira and Kiambu counties.

“We shall also engage the county, national government and the multinational tea companies on ways and policies to regulate the industry,” Sang said.

He wants the National Assembly Labour and Social Welfare Committee to investigate whether the machines comply with safety and health regulations.

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