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Why tea growers in Western feel left out

Agnes Gesora, a tea farmer plucks tea on 10/11/2021. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Years back, employees of Momul Tea Factory in Kericho would make regular benchmarking trips to Mudete Tea Factory in Vihiga County.

Farmers linked to Mudete Tea Factory in Vihiga were a happy lot then and enjoyed timely payments, bonuses, and low production costs. But 10 years down the line, things have changed.

“Increased production costs coupled with slow sales, brokers, erratic weather among other reasons have left farmers in a tight fix,” says Khasiani Abungana, Mudete Tea Factory board chair.

Survival tactics

Most of the frustrated farmers have uprooted the crop while some have started inter-cropping tea with other food crops according to the official.

Unlike in Central Kenya and Rift Valley where tea farmers have been happy and have enjoyed timely payments, favourable weather, and low production costs, farmers in Vihiga and Kakamega are disappointed, says Abungana.

“In other areas, we have elaborate systems including cooperatives to ensure tea farming happens in a structured manner but the same cannot be said about Kakamega and Vihiga where farmers depend on struggling factories,” argues Abungana.

Joseph Agwebenda, a farmer from Keveye village in Sabatia told The Smart Harvest that like many tea farmers from the area, he is also dejected.

He has no idea how his tea is auctioned and has little understanding of how prices are determined. The 56-year-old farmer has a half-acre tea farm and supplies the produce to Mudete Tea Factory.

“My father used to make money from tea farming. He could pay school fees for my siblings and even my children with the bonuses,” recalls Agwebenda.

The farmer also tasted the benefits in 2015. Agwebenda says he used to earn Sh12 for one kilogramme of tea leaves delivered to the factory.

“The returns were sufficient to cater for farm inputs, labour and other expenses involved in the production of the crop.”

He says that production costs have risen. “Labour has also become very expensive while the price of tea has reduced drastically.”

Mudete Tea Factory pays farmers Sh20 for one kilogramme of tea leaves.

Agwebenda gets between 15 - 20 kilogrammes from his farm. He pays a farmhand to help pick the tea at Sh200 per day.

He is contemplating abandoning tea farming to embrace other food crops including maize.

Lost faith in sector

Agwebenda is among thousands of farmers who have lost faith in the tea industry.

Cedric Mulongo, a tea farmer from Kakamega says transport and production costs are high and he has started growing alternative crops. “I have spared just half an acre for tea.”

It’s not all doom and gloom according to Morgan Kisambo, a farmer from Chandumba village who has been leasing small tea estates from locals who have given up on the crop.

Kisambo says the secret behind successful tea farming is to have a large area under the crop.

“Farmers with less than half an acre under the crop will keep  complaining because it is not economical to plant tea on a small area.”

He has also been picking his tea himself to cut costs.

Statistics released by Mudete Factory show production has declined in recent years. It reduced from 17 million kilogrammes per year in 2018 to 12 million kilogrammes in 2020.

This was blamed on many farmers abandoning tea farming. According to Abungana, there have been alleged cases of theft of raw tea leaves at collection points.

The factory has been milling at least 65,000 kilogrammes per day. The factory has also been urged to avoid middlemen and dealers who exploit farmers.

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