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Tea farmers stare at low yield after fertiliser cut

Horera Tea Company founder Robert Murimi picks tea at his farm in Ragati, Mathira West within Nyeri County. [Mose Sammy/Standard]

Smallholder tea production could decline substantially in the next one year as many farmers will not be applying top dressing fertiliser after annual bulk procurement was cancelled.

Small-scale growers are looking for private entrepreneurs who will supply them fertiliser as Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) that finances the joint importation prepares to refund millions remitted by farmers in a graduated scheme.

Last year, KTDA imported 95,937 metric tonnes (1,918,734 bags) of NPK 26:5:5 fertiliser valued at Sh3.822 billion on behalf of 619,637 small-scale tea farmers and some multinational companies. The fertiliser has been distributed through the 69 KTDA-managed tea factories in Kenya.

Farmers paid an average of Sh1,996 per 50kg bag compared to Sh1,774 in 2018, but KTDA said the market price of similar fertiliser in the open market then was Sh2,800.

Waithaka Mwangi, a commodity trader and tea farmer, said the suspension of imports offered an opportunity to farmers to diversify from industrial to organic fertiliser.

“This could be a golden opportunity to switch, and 100 per cent organic tea would give us higher yields, value and income after authentic organic certification,” said Mr Mwangi, noting that such a switch can in the present circumstances even be possible by January next year.

Mwangi said claims by KTDA that failure to procure the fertiliser was related to Covid-19 was doubtful.

“In view of the ongoing reforms in the sector, I think they are avoiding any spotlight regarding their processes whose integrity may be suspect,” he said on the ongoing review of the tea sector rules.

Murang’a County Agriculture Executive Albert Mwaniki said failure to apply the fertiliser will have implications on tea production.

Murang’a has 10 smallholder tea processing factories spread along Aberdare ridges, but Mwaniki said they envisaged low production since their farms are beholden to annual fertiliser applications.

“The country will face low production, poor quality, more dust, poor flavour and eventually low prices,” said Mwaniki.

Tea grower Wambugu Gachunji, who is also the chairman of Aberdare and Mt Kenya Tea Farmers Union, said the farmers were ready to make private plans to keep their farms in optimum production.

“We have made local plans to have the fertilisers supplied to our farmers even as they await refunds of deductions for the aborted KTDA procurement,” said Wambugu.

Makomboki Tea Factory director James Muchai said majority of the factories have not made plans to procure the input on behalf of the growers.

A cross check revealed that most of the agro chemical stores in tea-growing regions are placing orders for more stocks of fertilisers.

“The demand for input will be huge thus a need for adequate preparation with suppliers,” said Peter Mwangi.

Joseph Mwenda, a tea farmer in Imenti South, Meru County, said he was worried about his farm after skipping fertiliser application last year.

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