Tea farmers a happy lot as reforms change their fortunes

Tea sales account for about 23 per cent of total foreign exchange earnings and 2 per cent of the Agricultural GDP.

There's no crop that has placed Kenya on the international map like tea - Camellia sinensis - has. Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world: accounting for about 28 per cent of tea exports.

Tea sales account for about 23 per cent of total foreign exchange earnings and 2 per cent of the Agricultural GDP.

The numbers are staggering. For farmers like James Koech who have come very close to clearing their tea bushes, it smacks of irony.

It is a process that starts with either buying seedlings from a tea research facility or developing some from cuttings.

"I chose the latter," says Koech. "It takes about two years to nurture a seedling: from picking the right shoots to transplanting."

Betty Chelangat Chepkwony, a farmer with tea on two acres in Rwandit village [Courtesy]

In Kenya, the recommended spacing is 4 x 21/2. On an acre, a farmer plants approximately 4,000 tea trees. On his "slightly more than three acres" Koech had over 10,000 trees in 2020, the year before tea reforms were instituted.

By then, he says, he was merely coasting through the whole thing; imagining in his mind how else he could put his plot of land to good use.

"It was not fun being a tea farmer. The returns were horrible. Before reforms, we got paid poorly. A kilogram (kg) of green leaf was Sh12. I had taken loans on account of farming tea. The money I was earning could barely repay the loan.

"After reforms we have seen a lot of changes. We get Sh20 per kg. We also got paid a mini bonus of Sh7.5 per kg.

"Last year we got Sh30.5 per kg annual bonus. We were the best paid in the west of Rift Valley. I am happy with how things are going now,"

Just before the reforms were instituted, Koech says he had strongly considered uprooting all the tea from his farm.

"Many of us [tea farmers] were looking into clearing the field and perhaps going into dairy farming or look for another crop to grow."

James Koech contemplated uprooting his tea trees before tea reforms were instituted. He now hopes to extend his tea farm due to better proceeds realised with tea reforms [Courtesy]

Peter Munya, the immediate former Cabinet Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture told journalists in September 2021 that small scale tea farmers were not reaping from their hard work.

"To mitigate against declining earnings by the smallholder tea growers, a minimum reserve price was set in July [2021]," he said.

Small-scale tea farming is credited for over 65 per cent of the country's tea production; everything else is produced by multinational companies, like James Finlays.

The tea reforms were espoused in law through Crops (Tea Industry) Regulations 2020 and Tea Act, 2020.

Through the Act, the government then set the minimum price - also known as reserve price - for Kenyan tea at the Mombasa tea auction at $2.43 (Sh275 at the time) per kg. Just before, tea price at the auction had plummeted to $ 1.69 (Sh191), the lowest, preceding a decade.

The introduction of the reserve price saw factories under Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) make more money that translated to higher earnings for farmers, as intimated by farmer Koech.

Consequently, the government ordered that farmers be paid 50 per cent of the total value of the green leaf by 5th of the following month.

"Smallholder tea farmers have been affected by inefficiency in the value chain as well as price fluctuations. This year alone, the tea revenue has grown by 3.5 per cent courtesy of these reforms," says Wilson Muthaura, CEO and MD of the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).

For close to 5 decades, Julius Mwangi, from Kangema, in Murang'a County, has been a small scale tea farmer.

He says: "The reforms have brought farmers back to the tea fields. We used to be paid June money in November. We used to wonder what they were doing with the money 'keeping' it for us yet it bore no interest.

"Now we get paid as soon as the month begins: by 5th of every month."

As to just how bad the situation was, things came to a boil in 1997, Mwangi says. "I was a leader within kenya union of small scale tea owners (KUSTO). I rallied our members to go on strike. On 1st August 1997 no tea was picked in Kenya due to the strike."

Mwangi credits former CS Peter Munya with bringing forth the reforms. "It is an ongoing process: we are hoping that this year we will get Sh25 per kg or even more," he says.

Today, because of the reforms, farmers are accessing fertilizer affordably. The reforms allowed KTDA to procure fertilizer directly thereby offering them to farmers much more affordably.

Small-scale tea farming in Kenya accounts for about 65 per cent of the total tea production in the country: majority of them are under KTDA.

Before reforms, fertiliser, notes Joyce Moraa from Nyamiogo in Kisii County, was non-existent.

"We did not have fertilizer," she says. "Those who were able to look far and wide got it but at a very high price: more than Sh5,000."

Underscoring this is a complaint by tea farmers from Western Kenya (mostly in Kisii County) that they earn less compared to farmers from Eastern Kenya (in central Kenya).

"Every year we hear that farmers in the East have bonuses ranging from Sh30 to Sh50 per kg. That is a lot of money compared to what we get: last year we got Sh19. Are we being discriminated against?" Moraa quips.

Lameck Karia, the Field Services Coordinator at Ogembo Tea Factory - where Moraa takes her tea - says the low remuneration is linked to the quality of tea produced in Kisii.

"When the tea is taken for auction, its low quality leads to low price offers from buyers. And that reverberates back to the farmer's earnings.

"Farmers in the East have consistently produced high quality tea: and thus higher earnings.

"We are currently training our farmers to adopt proper crop husbandry practices: including proper use of fertilizer," Karia says.

Moraa says: "Perhaps now that we can access fertilizer, at an affordable price, the issue of quality will not arise again."

If farmers are currently earning better than before the reforms, what exactly had chocked the financial pipes?

"Cartels!" Mwangi says. And most small scale farmers we spoke to - over eight - agree with him.

None of the farmers could describe to us exactly who ran the cartels. But their suspicions had fomented and steeled.

"We, farmers, produce tea. Somewhere between processing and selling of the tea at the auction, people we do not know, capture the process and rip big profits from our sweat. Those are the cartels," Mwangi says emphatically.

Muthaura, who got appointed KTDA CEO in October 2021 as part of the reform agenda, agrees with Mwangi. He says: "The reforms are a big blow to cartels and middlemen who had hijacked processes in the value chain."

The cartels, many of the farmers say, worked hand-in-hand with rogue factory directors - who got elected by few, majority shareholder farmers.

The Tea Act, 2020 instituted a democratic system of one grower, one vote, for smallholder farmers to elect factory directors.

One-grower-one-vote has given farmers with few acres a voice in election of factory directors.

For Betty Chelangat Chepkwony, a farmer with tea on two acres in Rwandit village of Kericho County, the power to vote has also led to gender equality, albeit inadvertently.

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