Shrinking towns as tea-picking machines take up manual jobs

Workers picking Tea using a Tea Harvesting machine at a farm in Kericho. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Implementation of mechanised tea picking has led to reduced population in the cash crop growing belts of Nandi County.

Massive layoffs of workers whose manual roles have been replaced by latest technologies, have prompted an exodus from multinational tea estates that had seen mushrooming business enterprises.

Nandi Hills town, second largest commercial town in Nandi, has been enjoying a good cosmopolitan population and subsequent circulation of money owing to monthly earnings.

Currently, landlords and business owners are feeling the impact of a reduced population as majority workers leave the expansive tea estates.

When mechanisation was introduced, Wilson Mukhana was among the first to be rendered jobless in Nandi Hills.

He was forced to venture into alternative income generating activities including boda boda to earn a living. He could also be hired as a farm hand.

The Standard met Mukhana going about his activities at Kosoiywo village, about a kilometre from Nandi Hills town.

“Currently, fewer people work in tea estates and those of us who lost employment, are engaged in casual work. It has been two years since I was sacked when Covid-19 hit,” said Mukhana.

He said he is among hundreds of tea workers purged from multinational tea companies following introduction of plucking machines.

He said workers and their families have been forced to relocate and seek new ventures outside tea zones.

“I was born here when my parents shifted from Kakamega County to secure opportunities as tea pickers in 1980s. They are now elderly and it has been a challenge to provide for them since I was sacked,” he said.

They have been living at Kosoiywo slums, the densely populated cosmopolitan area where it’s estimated that over 5, 000 families are living. But massive exodus has been witnessed with rental houses currently deserted.

The initially booming businesses has turned dull in Nandi Hills town and its outskirts. Clubs and entertainment joints, hotels, food stalls, shops are recording declining business.

Nandi Hills started developing in 1945 thanks to expansive tea plantations. The region became cosmopolitan as opportunities attracted people from all regions.

It also became an agricultural centre and natives who are majorly farmers supplied their produce to estate dwellers.

The government put up security apparatus and banks were established. Nandi Hills hospital was elevated to level five to serve the population.

But things are drastically changing as mechanisation takes root. Caroline Chemutai, a vegetable vendor, claimed that some businesses have been closed after customers reduced.

“We supplied vegetables, maize among other food commodities to tea workers. They don’t have jobs now and some vacated rental houses and some of my colleagues were forced to close shop,” she said.

According to Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU), over 6,000 tea workers lost jobs between 2021 and 2022 and have relocated in search of alternative opportunities.

KPAWU Secretary General Eliakim Ochieng said: “Multinational tea companies have scaled down work force leaving only those is sections that have not been mechanised. It is a serious matter that needs intervention. Machines have caused economic disruption, which might possibly kill Nandi Hills town,” he said.

The ripple effects have been felt in various sectors including education and businesses. Local developers and real estate investors are counting losses after the tenants vacated their rental houses after defaulting payment.

Silas Kemboi, a real estate agent, claimed they have lost over Sh100,000 to tenants vacating premises without clearing dues.

“We have 65 rental rooms but around 20 are not occupied. Most of our tenants were tea workers. Real estate business is no longer vibrant,” said Kemboi.

The tea machines have been the centre of contention between Nandi county government and multinational tea companies. Governor Stephen Sang said tea machines will not be eliminated in tea estates and his administration is looking forward to pushing for alternative to create jobs for residents.

He said they are petitioning tea firms to donate over 1,000 acres of land in tea growing zones to establish an industrial park.

“The economic situation is dire and we have to seek other avenues. For years now, we have been talking about tea machines but clashes and vandalism cannot be a solution. We need more engagement with tea stakeholders.”

By Peter Theuri 40 mins ago
Premium Ruto claims he's an A student of Kibakinomics, experts say no
Premium Galana puts up case against Njeri's claim to Sh17b diesel import
Firms eye new deals at region's MSMEs trade fair in Burundi
Premium Hustler Fund at 1: Ruto bullish as questions on impact linger