Feature: Kenya's tea farmer faces challenges


NAIROBI, Jan. 20 (Xinhua) -- Kenya's Alex Mwangi inherited his father's tea farm ten years ago after the death of his parents.

Mwangi's one acre farm in Nyeri, in central Kenya makes him part of the estimated 500,000 small-scale tea farmers that produce about 60 percent of the country's tea production.

The rest of tea production comes from commercial plantations, some of which are owned by multinationals.

Mwangi, now in his mid 50s, remembers with nostalgia the 1970s and 1980s when tea farmers reaped huge rewards from the cash crop.

"My dad was able to provide for us a comfortable life from the earnings of tea even though we lived in the rural areas," Mwangi told Xinhua on Tuesday.

Currently, Mwangi said, he barely makes enough income from his tea farm to sustain his family of four and has to supplement his income by doing odd jobs in the nearby urban center.

"The returns from tea have been declining while the cost of input has been increasing," he added.

Kenya's small holder tea farmers deliver their green leaves to factories that they collectively own but are managed by the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA).

Farmers are paid monthly for their produce by the factories based on the weight of leaves they deliver and are also given a second payment in the form of a bonus based on the price of processed tea from their factories from sales at the Mombasa tea auction.

Tea was introduced in Kenya by the British colonial government at the turn of the twentieth century, but commercial estates began operating in the 1920s.

Locals were only permitted to start growing tea in the 1950s, a few years before Kenya attained independence in 1963.

The bulk of the tea grown in Kenya is black tea but specialty varieties such as purple tea are also grown in small quantities.

According to the agricultural ministry, Kenya produced 458 million kilograms of black tea in 2019.

The east African nation is the leading exporter of black tea in the world and in 2019 earned 117 billion shillings (about 1.1 billion U.S. dollars) from exports and 200 million dollars from domestic sales.

Peter Munya, cabinet secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives said that the government is seeking to revive the tea sector through a number of legal and tax reforms.

Munya noted that Value Added Tax (VAT) on tea will be removed while imported processed tea will soon attract 100 percent import duty.

"The VAT on tea is a levy that reduces farmers' earnings and complicates the market and is actually one of the factors that make it difficult for people to invest in processing tea locally," he added.

Munya revealed that the tea sector earnings will be greatly enhanced once the country fully embraces tea processing.

"We currently export over 90 percent of our tea in bulk form and this means we are losing a lot of revenue by not adding value to all of our tea exports," he added.

Elizabeth Njeri, manager, Gatanga industries in central Kenya, said that processing tea locally will fully transform the sector.

"We have seen more investors express willingness in setting up factories to process tea," said Njeri.

She revealed that factories prefer to sell tea in bulk to international clients because they have no direct link to final consumers who require tea in smaller and attractive packaging.

Emmanuel Kiprotich, a tea farmer in Kericho County, in the Rift Valley said that rising costs of production has made tea farming less lucrative.

"I am considering uprooting some of the tea bushes so that I can begin avocado farming," he added.

He observed that more and more tea farmers are seeking alternative crops especially in the horticulture sector in order to boost their incomes.

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