Governor Erick Mutai in trouble over tea estate deal

Kericho Governor Erick Mutai (centre) when he announced the agreement to sell James Finlay tea estate on May 5, 2023. [Julius Chepkwony, Standard]

Governor Erick Mutai now faces censure over the agreement on the sale of James Finlay Kenya Ltd tea business.

Kipsigis elders have now petitioned the County Assembly of Kericho, accusing Dr Mutai of ratifying the deal with the Sri Lanka-based Browns Investment PLC without consulting them.

The agreement was announced a fortnight ago after a two-hour meeting at the county headquarters, which was attended by the governor and James Finlay's top management led by Managing Director Simeon Hutchinson and Cooperate Affairs Director General Ben Woolf.

When he emerged from the meeting, Mutai said they had agreed on a number of issues, among them the allocation of 15 per cent of ownership shares to the local community.

He said Browns Investment will retain the current employees, will implement a recommendation by a task force and the National Lands Commission for a fresh resurvey of the tea estates, and any excess land be reverted to the county government.

James Finlay also agreed to withdraw all court cases.

But in the petition dated May 15 and signed by the Kipsigis Community Clans Association Chairman Paul Langat, the Governor has been accused of betraying the community.

"We want the county assembly to reconsider the decision made by the Governor and consult the community first before making any decisions on any matter concerning the multinational tea companies," Langat said.

He recalled that the community was evicted from their ancestral land by the colonial administration.

"The community suffered in the hands of the colonial government and the governor should not betray the community by reaching an agreement with the multinational tea companies without consulting the community on the way forward."

The petition was filed at the assembly on Tuesday, and is expected to be placed before the relevant House committee.

The issues raised by the community come at a time when James Finlay is completing the sale, which excludes Saosa tea extraction facility.

Saosa will continue to source leaf tea, timber and other services directly from James Finlay Kenya, meaning an uninterrupted service to existing customers.

As part of the sale, Brown and James Finlay have acknowledged the long-standing support of the local community by selling shares in James Finlay Kenya to a locally-owned co-operative.

James Finlay has identified a third party, which it is currently in discussions with.

For long, the community has been pushing the British government to address historical land injustices on the Talai clan through a May 1934 ordinance by the Attorney General William Harringan, which saw the removal of the community from their land.

The law, which was swiftly passed by the Legislative Council, followed Kericho colonial District Commissioner Douglas Brumage's recommendations and saw the removal of the entire clan from the Kipsigis land reserve.

The colonial government took over the farms estimated to be 800,000 acres, straddling Kericho and Bomet counties under tea estates owned by multinational firms.

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