Impact of tea picking machines top campaign agenda in Nandi

Tea pickers operate a tea picking machine at Nandi Hills in Nandi County. [Kevin Tunoi, Standard]

The mechanisation of the tea sector has dominated ongoing political campaigns with residents expecting the next government to regulate machine use.

Use of tea picking machines has been introduced gradually by multinational companies in the region since 2013 with an estimated over 10,000 job opportunities lost.

The vibrant economy in tea-growing zones has significantly dwindled in Nandi Hills, Tindiret and some parts of Aldai, where locals, majorly rely on tea farming as a livelihood.

The expansive tea plantations provided employment for hundreds of locals who contribute to robust growth in urban centres including Nandi Hills town, the second largest in Nandi county.

Continued loss of jobs due to mechanisation has been blamed for insecurity cases especially in densely populated slums due to lack of employment, mainly among the youth.

And the uproar against the tea picking machines has attracted the attention of the Kenya Kwanza Alliance and Azimio la Umoja presidential campaigns, where Deputy President William Ruto and his competitor Raila Odinga have made inroads in the region.

Workers Union and the tea cooperative societies have raised their concern over the massive loss of jobs as a result of the adoption of sophisticated tea picking technology.

In the Azimio la Umoja presidential campaigns, Cotu secretary General Francis Atwoli said the mechanisation has led to over 200,000 job losses from the tea sector in the country.

“We know the challenges posed by tea picking machines and as a union, we shall engage Azimio government if it will be elected, on ways and structured policies to regulate the industry,” he told the residents.

He assured that workers union’s have a plan that will be integrated with the government tea reforms to secure job opportunities for the youths in the tea growing zones.

Wilson Tuwei, the Chair for Siret Cooperative Society noted that despite government interventions to restore tea sector, the tea production have been too costly and unsustainable for farmers.

“The small-scale tea farmers cannot provide effective labor to accommodate workers who lose job opportunities in multinational companies. It is too costly to employ workers in private farms,” he stated.

Tuwei said due to inflation, tea plucking costs between Sh10 and Sh15 per kilogram and small-scale farmers lack the capacity to employ pickers.

Azimio leader acknowledged calls for the machines to be banned and promised if he wins the presidential elections, he will ensure workers grievances are addressed.

“I have noted issues raised and the machines, which have denied our youths employment opportunities. We shall consider ways of improving the economy of the region,” affirmed Raila.

Though Ruto didn’t dwell on the mechanisation of the tea sector during his presidential campaigns in Nandi, he said his government, if elected, will revitalise tea sector as one of the major agricultural aspects in the country.

“Agriculture is the major source of food and employment in the country, and we shall have a deliberate initiative to make sure that the tea sector offer employment opportunities for our youth,” said Ruto.

Governor Stephen Sang, one of Ruto’s allies said Kenya Kwanza government will seek to address the issue of expired land leases and a push to review on the land rates.

“Apart from the tea picking machines, we shall prevail upon multinational tea companies to delete the blacklisted workers. The former employees have been locked out and they don’t qualify to be employed once again in the tea estate,” said Governor Sang.

Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Apolo Kiarie said political leaders have their democratic rights to raise issues touching on economic situation in the country and said the court in 2019 gave the tea companies an okay to use machines.

“The court agreed with us to use modern ways to protect the ailing tea sector in the country. And like any other businesses, we were allowed to use tea picking machines to secure factories that were heading to collapsed as a result of market instability,” he stated.

He dismissed claims that machines took over jobs, arguing that the introduction of efficient tea picking has created auxiliary job opportunities like technicians and sellers of the tea picking machines.