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Tea farmers: We live like slaves in our own farms

NEWS
By Wainaina Ndung'u | April 26th 2021

Paul Mwangi, 60, a tea farmer affiliated to Gathuthi Tea Factory in Tetu, Nyeri. [ Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Tea farmers at smallholder tea factories have given an insight into why the clamour for reforms and change of leadership is exciting them. 

According to some of them, things can only look up after the recent changes proposed by the Tea Act, 2020 and government declaration of intent for reforms.

Paul Mwangi, in his 60s, comfortably harvests tea on his farm the whole day and delivers to the local collection centre where he chairs the management committee.

The Gathuthi Tea Factory farmer was beaming with hope when we paid him a visit at his hilly farm in Karega village in Mahiga ward, in Nyeri County.

Other than small portions of his farm occupied by Napier grass, seasonal food crops and Eucalyptus, his four acres are entirely under the tea crop.

“The climatic condition and the soils of this area predispose us to only practice tea farming. Although we get regular payments, tea farmers have had a raw deal for decades. I just hope one day we shall be able to do tea farming as a profitable business,” said Mwangi.

With 5,000 tea plants, his yearly harvest is just over 7,000 kilogrammes meaning that the monthly harvest is just under 600 kilogrammes which earn him Sh10,000 before any deductions.

He hires plucking labour at Sh11 per kilo meaning 500 kilogrammes take up Sh5,500.

Other deductions for cess and pre contributions for the annual fertiliser purchase scheme set him back another Sh2,000. It means that on a normal month his earnings from his farm averages less than Sh3,000.

“Clearly, you cannot live on this and though it helps us in a way, it means we are perennially on bank loans to finance farm labour, living expenses and school fees for our children among other expenses,” said the farmer.

He said the perennial borrowing cycle that tea farmers have been relegated into means that disposable income is nonexistent for the bulk of 620,000 smallholders in the country.

“I can’t remember a single year in the last 20 years that I was not servicing a loan. I am still servicing one as we talk because children have to be educated and life has to continue,” said Mwangi.

The narrative is similar among many of the tea farmers we talked to-they survive on loans.

Borrowing curse

“My hope is that we shall not consign another generation to this borrowing curse,” he added. However, he said he is optimistic the tea reforms will reverse the situation and make a little favourable for them.

One of the reasons insiders at the Kenya Tea Development Agency have always opposed substantial regular monthly payments for farmers is that the cost of harvesting labour would substantially rise something that Mwangi thinks should not worry the Agency.

“Harvesting is usually done by our neighbours and relatives, if they get a rise, what would be the harm? Our people earning this money is much better than having other people earning from our sweat,” said Mwangi.

John Mbiriri who has 5,000 trees on three acres said he had to venture into passion, avocado and fish farming to supplement his income.

“You cannot financially rely on tea farming. We have to diversify because of the instability that has gripped our main income earner,” said Mbiriri.

Mbiriri who once had a role as a chairman of the credit committee of the local tea farmers Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO) said tea farmers cannot survive without loans given the little income they make from their farms.

“No farmer can survive in this industry without credit. I know it because I am one and I also know how desperate most of my peers are,” he said.

Balance equations

Like every tea farmer, he admitted that tea is one of the cash crops that guarantee regular pay and the only profitable crop that can thrive in the upper climatic zones in the region.

Even with the regular payments, tea farmers have struggled for years to balance their financial equations.

Mbiriri pays Sh12 per kilo for plucking labour almost wiping out his monthly payments which were Sh16 per kilo before KTDA raised the amount to Sh21 in January.

Mbiriri said his bank account is also perennially servicing loans.

“With the backing of the government, we are content that the reforms will succeed this time around. If they do, farmers will forever be grateful to the president,” said Mbiriri.

So which formula do the new directors elected by farmers’ special general elections in all the factories in Mt Kenya intend to use to achieve farmers dreams for higher payments?

Paul Gitonga Wanjau, who was elected the new chairman of the Gathuthi Tea Factory offers a simple answer. “I have been a director of the factory for the past five years. I know it through and through. I know the avenues under which finances are lost,” said Wanjau.

He promises that new teams are committed to removing avenues for conflict of interest and kickbacks in tenders and contracts that make projects and processes expensive, shrinking farmers’ earnings.

“A lot of unscrupulous contestants believe there is free money to be earned from such companies and that will be the genesis of other problems,” said Wanjau.

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