Ruto asked to weigh in on the tea machine harvesting debate

In Marinyin tea estate where a tea harvesting machine crushed to death a security guard on July 16, 2023. [Nikko Tanui, Standard]

Talks between tea companies and a task force formed to look into the use of tea harvesting machines in Kericho and Bomet counties have stalled.

This has forced leaders in Kericho to appeal to President William Ruto to intervene and help resolve the issue.

The call was made when the President was commissioning the Sh1.2 billion Kimugu water project, where Senate Leader of the majority, Aaron Cheruiyot, raised the contentious issue.

He accused the multinational tea firms of being unyielding in their stance during a series of four meetings with Kericho and Bomet leaders regarding the deployment of mechanised tea harvesting machines.

"We appeal to you, Mr. President, to intervene in the matter by summoning the management of the multinational tea firms to your office so that they can clearly state their position. Nonetheless, they must listen to us or leave," said Cheruiyot.

Kericho Governor Erick Mutai expressed his concerns about the mechanised tea harvesting machines, saying his calls for their outlawing resulted in persecution.

He was summoned to give a statement at the Nakuru DCI after violent demonstrators destroyed the machines worth millions of shillings at Ekatterra tea estate in May.

"What I am fighting for is the creation of employment opportunities for local tea pickers. I have no other hidden agenda," said Dr. Mutai.

Governor Mutai, like Cheruiyot, also implored the President to summon the management of the multinational tea firms to his office in an attempt to break the stalemate.

Meanwhile, Ruto did not immediately engage in the heated debate but proceeded to invite other leaders from the Kenya Kwanza group in his entourage to address the gathering.

As the region's leaders and tea industry stakeholders awaited the President's stance, Apollo Kiarii, the Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA), refuted Cheruiyot and Dr. Mutai's claims, saying the tea firms had not refused to negotiate.

"The first session of the working committee had not even taken place since the joint meeting held in Bomet on June 23," he said. During the joint meeting, both sides had agreed to form a technical team comprising 12 committee members from Kericho and Bomet counties, along with six representatives from the multinational tea firms, making 18 members.

They will discuss the recommendations of the tea task force, which had suggested that 60% of the tea plantation be picked by local tea pickers, and 40 per cent be reserved for mechanized tea harvesting machines.

KTGA chairman, Silas Njibwakale, said unemployment is a national concern and emphasised the need for constructive dialogue to create an enabling environment for local economic growth, sustainable job creation, and development.

"Large-scale tea producers are committed to the long-term prosperity of the tea industry and the communities it supports," he said.