Tantrums won't resolve tea machines saga

Workers pick Tea using a Tea Harvesting machine at a farm in Kericho. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

All is not well in the South Rift where the storm is brewing in the teacup over the introduction of mechanised agriculture.

Tea firms stand accused of mechanising operations at the expense of human labour. Just days ago, they were told to leave Kenya ‘like yesterday’ if they so wished.

Local leaders say they are tired of ‘blackmail’ and if push comes to shove, they will seek new investors who will play ball.  The clash is nasty and could have complex ramifications if politically and emotionally mishandled. While it is imperative to get a win-win answer, it doesn’t help when parties to the row throw tantrums. It’s the small people, hustlers, if you wish, who suffer in the end. And in the same breath, it is a slip-up to use public fora to talk at investors. They need us and we badly need them. In an era of economic globalisation, flipping the bird at investors for whatever reason is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Investors, too, must fully comply with international best business practices.

Apart from politicians, unions detest tea-picking machines. The mechanisation programme comes with job losses. But proponents argue that it increases efficiency and value. In Kericho County, the standoff has led to ugly scenes, including violence and the burning of harvesting machines. Do we really need that? To whose benefit?

At any rate, it is impossible to fight technology in the 21st century. Instead of making Kenya’s agricultural sector appear notoriously rigid, we can create a dynamic economy by not just allowing dialogue but also trying out diverse innovations and newly tested systems.

Politicians in the counties can initiate bold programmes that lead to diversification and more job opportunities instead of taking the easier route of fighting change through clever populism. We can scratch our heads and find creative means to revitalise low-income areas and ensure social stability without being stuck in the past.

Technology has been billed as the future of industrial productivity. When we love innovation in pharmacy, politics, communications, and every other sector, we have no solid reason to look the other way when technology catches up with us right on the farms. For a country that basks in global fame courtesy of breakthroughs like MPesa, the e-citizen platform, the one-stop Huduma Centres, and many ed-tech and fin-tech creations, it is a contradiction of monumental proportions to reject mechanised farming.

The world over, agriculture has gone hi-tech. Farmers seek markets online. Importers and exporters do their thing on the web. For a struggling country whose economic future depends by and large on agriculture, we can’t, in totality, reject ideas whose time has come.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes mechanisation as a crucial input for production. With small-scale farmers growing nearly 80 per cent of Africa’s food through physical labour, the need for mechanised farming has never been more urgent as the continent faces a population explosion of nearly double in another 30 years. The Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of experts who guide policy choices of countries towards progress, suggests that African countries should craft achievable plans of investing in agricultural mechanisation in the quest for enhanced farm productivity. Kenya can’t be left out.

Researchers point to the fact that machine integration lessens stress and reduces burnout among farm workers. Political opportunism should not, therefore, stand in the way of us becoming an industrialised nation led by ‘digital’ leaders.

The South Rift counties and the tea investors should sit down and talk in all honesty. Perhaps a phased rollout of machanisation would suffice for now. The national government should speak up and inspire hope of political goodwill in resolving the row. But we can’t bury our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich when technology is revolutionising the world. 

The writer is an editor at The Standard. Twitter: @markoloo