Tea farming still viable despite sector woes

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020 09:40 |

Although the crop’s prices have been discouraging over the last few years, growers in the North Rift have vowed to weather the storm, hoping that things will change soon

Many smallholder tea farmers in the country are making good money from the crop, contrary to widely held views that it’s all doom and gloom in the sector. 

While tea prices have been discouraging for the last few years, farmers in the North Rift region have vowed to weather the challenges, confident that things will change soon. 

In January, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the restructuring of Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), the main marketer of smallholder tea, raising hopes that the sector could enjoy improved earning in days to come. 

President Uhuru’s order came after stakeholders in the sector accused KTDA of fixing prices, conflict of interest and graft. This was creating a situation where tea brokers earned more than farmers yet it’s the farmers who did the donkey work.

Low earnings 

A recent visit by AgriBiz in Nandi county, a major tea-growing zone, reveals a people determined to live off the green gold despite the changes in local and international markets. Sammy Biwott, 45, from Kiropket, Kapsabet, has been farming tea since 1990 and says he is not quitting any time soon.  From three acres back then, he now has 60 acres under the crop from which he harvests 800 to 900 kilogrammes per acre every month. He delivers the green tea leaf to Chebut KTDA managed factory.

Last year, he sold tea at an average of Sh17 per kilo and received an annual bonus of Sh16.90. This was much lower than the Sh29.40 bonus he received the previous year. 

Biwott attributes the reduction in prices mostly to events in global markets, well beyond the control of local farmers. “Protect farmers from brokers and don’t politicise the crop. Leave tea to farmers,” he advises.

He, however, accuses fellow farmers of contributing towards low earnings locally as some plucked the wrong leaves while others let harvested green leaf to overstay before delivery to the factory.  “A monthly payment of Sh25 and Sh30 bonus would have been more acceptable,” says Biwott.

An acre of tea, if well tended should yield about 900 kilogrammes of green leaf per month, according to Biwott. This requires that one tills the farm, pick tea after every eight to nine days, and feed the crop with adequate manure. 

One also needs to prune the shrubs every three years, July being the most appropriate time because of the cold weather.  Despite KTDA supplying fertiliser on credit to farmers, he considers inorganic manure and labour his biggest cost items.  

He pays tea pluckers an average of Sh8 per kilo.Last year, Kiropket farmers got fertilisers at Sh1,700 per 50kg bag against the market average of Sh3,200 a bag.  

Biwott advises those seeking to go into tea farming to start small, like he did back in 1990. “I have always enjoyed as a tea grower; it’s good business. It enables you and your family to live well and acquire loans if necessary. I have educated my children using mostly tea bonuses,” says Biwott. 

“Even half an acre is economically viable. It gives you 400 to 500 kilogrammes a month, which translates to over Sh7,000 per month excluding the annual bonus. If you plant today, you will start plucking within a year and get proper returns within three years once the shrubs matures,” said Biwott.

After planting, the crop funds itself without the need for farmers to seek money from elsewhere. However, it requires patience. “Don’t panic when prices fall,” he adds.  

Joseph Manjuy Lagat from Chebalus location, Nandi, has been growing tea since 1980 when he began with two acres at a cost of about Sh2,000. Lagat, a Technical Director at Siret Tea Factory, now has 40 acres out of his 115 acres under tea from which he harvests an average of 5,000 kilos per acre. 

Lagat uses the rest of the farm to  growcoffee, bananas, avocadoes and an array of indigenous trees. He sells his produce to Eastern Produce Kenya Ltd, a private firm  where he once served as a director.

Purple tea 

Last year, the average monthly price at the factory was Sh22 per kilo. “If you produce less than 3,000 kilos of tea per acre, you are out of business,” says Lagat. 

He considers labour his biggest expense followed by fertiliser. He pays his workers Sh14 per kilo of green tea plucked and feeds about six bags of fertiliser per acre of bush. 

For Lagat, credit is available from personal sources instead of the more expensive commercial banks, which lowers the cost of production. “As long as you have tea, you will always get some cash every month. With it you can pay school fees, build a house and meet household needs. Just plant, the current situation will change,” he advices.

And just like Biwott, he advises new tea farmers to exercise patience, saying although the crop forms a good canopy by the third year, one at times needed to wait for about six years to maximise yields. 

In January, President Uhuru instituted a raft of measures aimed at ensuring farmers get a fair share of the tea earnings. The measures are also expected to weed out brokers whom he accused of pocketing about Sh50 per kilo of tea sold.

The President directed Kenya KTDA to pay farmers not less than 50 per cent of their deliveries as monthly payments with the balance being paid as annual bonus. Additionally, he ordered that all the nine KTDA subsidiaries be placed under different governance structures.

The President further directed that the volume of tea sold through the Mombasa auction be capped at 80 per cent and that sold via direct sales capped at 20 per cent.

Kenya is a leading exporter of black tea, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of total global tea exports. In 2018, the country exported 476 million kilogrammes of tea earning Sh140 billion. 

Meanwhile, KTDA has been urging farmers to grow specialty tea including purple and orthodox tea to increase their earnings. Already, the agency has over seven factories processing orthodox tea for smallholder farmers.  

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