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Farm tours cash cow for farmers

By Wainaina Wambu | June 7th 2021
Gatura Greens Tea Farm Tour Director Robert Gachie (left) explains the tea plucking process to KTB Company Secretary Allan Njoroge (Right) during the launch of farm tours in Murang'a. [Courtesy]

After less than a two-hour drive from Nairobi, we are met by a sea of purple on rolling hills that appear to hug the sky on the horizon.

This “Instagrammable” scenery is Gatura Greens in Gatang’a, Murang’a County – Kenya’s premier purple tea estate that also boasts a bamboo forest and a waterfall.

The expansive family-owned farm that has 100 acres of green tea bushes, 20 acres of purple tea and 10 acres of forest is a model of a booming niche of agro-tourism or farm tours.

“We have a speciality that is purple tea. So we decided to form an experience around it because we realised that there were so many gems here that a majority of people didn’t have access to,” said Kathryn Karanja, one of the siblings who co-founded the concept.

As a tourist hotspot, Kenya is traditionally famed for its wildlife safaris and breathtaking beaches.

However, other segments such as farm tours, running with world-class athletes, mountain climbing and cultural tourism are gaining currency.

Tourism has been one of the hardest-hit sectors by the pandemic and has been forced to reinvent to stay afloat. Travel restrictions by governments around the world to contain the spread of the virus have seen the over one million visitors who visited the country annually dry up.

Now, family-owned tea estates are opening up their doors to tourists.

The Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) has been running a campaign during the pandemic to enable the industry to attract domestic tourists.

“The modern tourist is looking for experiences like this where they are actively participating in the activity,” said KTB Acting Chief Executive Allan Njoroge.

Mr Njoroge said the modern tourist is keen on knowing how what they consume is made.

Tea is one of Kenya’s top three foreign exchange-earners, contributing about four per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). As of 2019, the value of Kenyan tea exports stood at Sh118 billion.

“Tea has its own aesthetic value and also the topography of where it’s grown gives good scenery for the tourists,” said Gatura Greens’ Ms Karanja.  

While the green bush that makes the regular tea has antioxidants, the purple bush has a much stronger concentration and helps fight cancer cells and cholesterol, regulates sugar levels for diabetics and aids in weight loss.

Purple tea fetches twice as much as the regular green bush in the market.

Gatura Greens has over 10 different types of teas made at their cottage factory. Tea tasting is part of the tourist experience at the farm.

Farm tours can be a good trip for families or a bunch of friends looking for a getaway from the city. 

Visitors get to learn the history of tea and how it ends up in a cup, which forms the experiential part.

Purple tea fetches twice as much as the regular green bush in the market. [File, Standard]

The tea is processed the orthodox way, making it an engaging experience where guests go through the main stages, including roasting, rolling and drying.

Gatura Greens also offers accommodation in the farmhouse, while those looking for the ultimate outdoor experience can do camping.

There is also a nature trail across the bamboo forest to the river and waterfall, where guests can swim.

Coffee estates have also not been left behind in the farm tour boom.

One of the pioneers of such tours is Fairview Coffee Estate in Kiambu, which started the tours in 2015.

Most coffee estates in and around Kiambu County have disappeared in the last two decades, paving way for real estate.

Fairview Estate Director Michael Warui told Financial Standard said incorporating tours is one of the ways to shore up earnings and market their coffee.

“The reason we are doing this is that once you add that immersive experiential experience to the production side of the business, you are able to sell your coffee effectively for $50 (Sh5,350) per kg,” he said.

Fairview has managed to bypass the middlemen at the coffee auction and sells directly to buyers in different markets after it attained certification for its coffee.

When selling directly to buyers, such as Starbucks, it can make double the amount it would fetch at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange.  

“When locals pay Sh3,000 for the experience (tour), they really enjoy and want to buy the coffee. Meanwhile, smallholder farmers through the auctions get much less. We are making 100 per cent value through creativity and innovation,” said Warui.

The coffee trees span 44ha, and visitors learn how the crop is grown and processed. They also get to sample some of the top-grade coffees that Fairview offers.

Visitors get to learn the history of tea and how it ends up in a cup, which forms the experiential part. [File, Standard]

Other tea farms offering such an experience include the Kiambethu Tea Farm in Limuru, which is a short drive from Nairobi.

The farm was pioneered by AB McDonell in 1910. McDonell was one of the first entrepreneurs to make and sell tea commercially in Kenya.

Fiona Vernon, the granddaughter of McDonell, runs the farm now.

The farm has over 20 acres of tea and the tours also include an indigenous forest.

Other coffee farms that offer tours include Kiburi Homestay in Kirinyaga County. The farm was started in the early 1960s by late former administrator Geoffery Kariithi and is now run by his grandchildren.

The farm offers accommodation and has a myriad of activities including country drives, camping, hikes and a meditation centre.

In neighbouring Nyeri County, Waihiga Farm in Kianjogu, where coffee trees were first planted in 1952 by Cyrus Mathangani and his father, visitors can also learn about dairy and pig farming. 

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