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Why mechanising tea production could pay

It is not a matter of if, but when. Given that Kenya consumes only five per cent of the tea it produces, and exports the rest, it is essential that the Kenyan tea industry remains globally competitive – and the only way it can do so is by modernising operations through mechanisation and automation. Several industries with similar challenges will follow suit.

A person who looks rationally at the production economic facts will realise that globally, tea farmers are losing competitiveness because of escalating costs of production. Those are the clear trends ahead.

While that is the eminent fact, it is important to have the discussions around tea mechanisation driven by facts and not emotions to arrive at a workable middle ground that ensures viability of the industry and make it beneficial to both sides of the equation.

Blind lobbying by trade unionists will not help the situation, as has been demonstrated many times throughout history.

Through the years, whenever industries are threatened by production costs, they turn to more efficient ways to lower such costs. The tea sector is one that is currently facing a rise in such costs.

Industry research shows that almost 80 per cent of the costs of producing tea are fixed; meaning little can be done to grow output unless these costs are met and that there is no easy way around such costs unless technology is involved.

Less demand

Unfortunately, labour in tea gardens accounts for about 50 per cent of the costs of production. Add other fixed costs like fertiliser, fuel and energy, and it is easy to see why the tea sector is in urgent need of reforms.

In addition to falling prices at auctions, less demand for Kenya’s tea exports and greater competition from growers in India and China are adding to the pressure to reform. Without a way around the costs, Kenyan tea will become less competitive, have lower quality and eventually die a natural death.

Mechanisation and automation of tea gardens is the answer.

Mechanical harvesting of tea addresses labour and quality issues — the two critical factors that will ensure Kenyan tea remains competitive.

In a paper titled ‘The Impact of Mechanisation of TeaHarvesting on the Quality of South Indian CTS Teas’ by Ramaswamy Ravichandran and Ramaswamy Parthiban published in 1998, it was found that the chemical quality parameters and sensory evaluation of black teaschanged with the method of plucking.

According to the paper, hand-plucked tea was very rich in their green leaf biomedical precursors and had higher contents of made tea quality constituents than shear-plucked tea.

But here is the interesting bit: quality deterioration of teawas mainly due to mechanical injury and non-selective plucking with shear harvesting (a mechanical process), not the fact that it was shear harvesting as a method of harvesting.

This means that with proper guidelines and professionalism, the quality of tea picked mechanically should not be a worry.

The paper also found that over time, tea obtained by shear harvesting from a continuously sheared field over a prolonged period was superior.

In summary, the use of shears (mechanisation) reduced the yield and increased the plucking average with a net decrease in cost of production compared to hand plucking.

On costs, research indicates that two workers operating a mechanical harvester with two other assisting workers (handling and quality control) for a day can bring in the equivalent of leaf of 12 workers hand-plucking tea.

It is therefore obvious that mechanical harvesting addresses both labour and quality issues.

Lobbyists say mechanisation will lead to workers being laid off, which in the Kenyan situation has never happened since mechanisation started more than 20 years ago. But what is better - letting the industry die a natural death for being non-competitive or steering it towards a more sustainable, profitable path?

It is clear that mechanisation will ensure a leaner but well-paid and higher skilled workforce.

It is also obvious that as long as there are tea gardens, there will be need for a large workforce to carry out activities that cannot be mechanised.

In addition, mechanisation will also bring in new industries for suppliers, operators, maintenance teams and so others, which will create new work streams.

Fundamental changes

Mechanical harvesting requires machinery but it also requires fundamental changes in management understanding and attitude to make machines work successfully.

Machines do not replace hand plucking on a like-for-like basis; to be a fully successful replacement of hand labour requires systemic changes in the tea field.

Now is the time to modify planting to allow mechanisation and to adapt field management to optimise mechanisation. Therein lies the solution.

While it is inevitable that mechanisation is necessary, the pace of reform will be directly linked to the pace of wage increases, but mechanisation should take place in such a way that the plight of the current workers is addressed, that no one is fired directly because of mechanisation but that the process is slowly integrated into the existing working framework.

Unfortunately, mechanisation will mean a freeze in the old method of hiring, which is no longer viable, and a leaning towards a more skilled, better-trained workforce.

Those are the hard facts - mechanisation is coming, the question is when.

Mr Aron is an economic researcher and award-winning business journalist; [email protected]