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Tea-plucking machines row: Welcome to the future of jobs

Financial Standard
 A tea-plucking machine in use at the James Finlays Tea Estate in Kericho County. [Joseph Kipsang, Standard]

Before artificial intelligence started threatening “thinking” jobs, mechanisation had threatened and eliminated many manual jobs.

Surprisingly, one such job is picking grapes. Imagine picking coffee using a machine! It is a reality.

Innovation keeps surprising us. Who thought tea picking could be mechanised and still maintain the standard two leaves and a bud?

Has mechanised picking diluted tea taste? The bulk of Kenyan tea is used in blending and earns a premium. But labour costs are driving mechanisation.

The issue, despite cross-pollination from politics and historical injustice, is beyond mechanisation; it’s a conflict between the past and the future.

The past was about tea being a labour-intensive industry. That created many jobs. A visit to tea growing zones indicates the cost of labour has been going up, more so because tea is perishable.

According to Michael Kamau, a small-scale tea farmer from Gatundu, it is about 25kg per kg in the area. If I may digress, is it true that tea-picking zones produce the best wives? Good income ensures they are healthy and beautiful while hard work forces them to be responsible. I am asking for a friend!  

A visit to a tea-growing zone in Central Kenya explains the rising labour costs. High literacy rates have raised expectations, and tea picking is not considered a good job. The region has been importing tea pickers with demographic consequences. The imported labour is assimilated into local culture - and the genetic pool is probably enriched. 

Why are tea-picking machines such a big issue in plantations? My hunch is that unemployment is to blame. With jobs scarce, any job has a premium. Watching the ongoing demos over tea-picking machines, I saw lots of youthful faces. The demos are a paradox. Should these youths not aspire to leave manual work and join the modern sector espoused by AI (artificial intelligence), ICT, and high tech? 

The average age of a farmer in Kenya is said to be 60. Why should the age of the tea picker be lower?  Does resisting tea-picking machines show a decline in youth expectations?

We can’t rule out some envy over tea farms, some of which are owned by multinationals. Does this show that our economy is not growing fast enough, particularly in the high-tech sector where youths are at home? 

Think of California where farming labour is imported but Silicon Valley thrives. Curiously, Silicon Valley imports high-tech labour too espoused by the H1B visa. Forget the Green Card for now. Resisting technology is not new. Horse owners resisted cars. Taxi owners resisted Uber and other taxi-hailing apps, while banks resisted M-Pesa. We resisted computers, and more recently online learning and working from home.  

But as Joseph Schumpeter(1883-1950) put it, it’s hard to resist the gale of creative destruction.

Eventually, new technology wins. Will tea be an exception? That could take time among the small-scale farmers who rarely technology in farming; the hoe still reigns.

New technology is expensive and needs a critical mass for adoption and reduction in cost.

Remember the cost of mobile phones when only a few owned them? Will tea-picking technology be widely adopted and become affordable to more tea farmers? Does it surprise you it’s pioneered by large plantations?   

Would mechanising agriculture reduce the cost of food and make us more food secure? How about potato, maize, and other crop harvester and planters? Will mechanisation not make agriculture cool and attract the youth?  What about tomorrow? Long before the dust settles over the mechanisation of tea picking, another ghost hangs over jobs - AI. While burning tea-picking machines can elicit anger, how do we express anger over AI?

Do we burn computers or disconnect from the Internet? We know who owns tea estates, but who owns the Internet and its affiliated technology?  

While fixated on the past, the future has arrived prematurely. Past advances in technology affected the elderly, and now even the young are not safe.

The past advances in technology affected manual workers; now even thinkers are not safe courtesy of AI. Any exit strategy?  

Are we paying the price of not investing in science and technology for the last 60 years? Suppose Kenya makes and exports tea-picking machines. Suppose 75 per cent of our university students pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)?  

It seems the future will need generalists, people with diverse skills, agile and adaptable. The hitherto loved specialists are now threatened by AI.

Remember scientific management and praise for specialisation? Our schools should take note. How much specialisation is envisaged in the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC)? 

We have come full circle - from generalists to specialists and back to generalists. But there is nothing new; isn’t the Earth round? 

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