Without cartels, we’d have a ‘tea story’ in every cash crop

Peter Munya with KTDA's Dr Wesley Koech

Agriculture CS Peter Munya with KTDA board vice-chairman Dr Wesley Koech last September.

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

As Kenyans push for reforms in the coffee and sugar sectors, there is evidence that a good story could emerge from sustained pressure if farmers united to fight for their rights.

Good news hardly make top news. But those who keenly follow the Mombasa tea auction must have realised that prices have rallied by over 65 per cent following reforms in the sector.

Besides, some factories have managed to get more than $4 (Sh400) per kilogramme, meaning that soon, tea farmers will get value for their crop.

For years, tea business was held hostage by cartels sitting at the headquarters and farmer-owned factories. Their networks ran so deep farmers could hardly understand the tea value chain and markets and were kept in the dark about the auction system.

Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) was held hostage by parties with vested interests.

Politicians from tea-growing areas mainly kept off KTDA and allowed it to run roughshod over farmers. It had also established a piggy bank, Green Fedha, which was charging farmers loan interest at the rate of 21 per cent. That has since been lowered to eight per cent.

Farmers now elect their directors and the government has re-established the Tea Board of Kenya. Even the governors and MPs who opposed reforms jumped the cartel ship when it started to sink.

Frustrated by cartels

For years, attempts at rescuing the coffee and sugar sectors were frustrated by local and international cartels. Kenya has some of the best coffee in the world yet our production has continued to dip. It fell from 930,000 units of 60kg bags in 2018 to 775,000 in the 2020 crop year. With farmers not getting value for their produce, coffee farms in the highlands were being abandoned or turned into real estate.

Why should a country with among the five best coffees be struggling with foreign exchange? Why should our farmers—the owners of a coffee crop distinct by its rich body, high acidity, intense flavour and delightful aroma—walk around in tatters? Kenya should be exporting coffee worth billions of shillings but we hardly get past Sh20 billion. But we can.

First, we need to sit down and rethink the value chain. We must have a discussion with the international market and stop the exploitation of farmers.

When Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya put a minimum price on tea, there was a futile push by some buyers to boycott the Mombasa auction. Then farmers held on to their crop and buyers had to give in. Let’s seal the leakages in coffee and sugar.

Farmers are made to believe that only extraction of sugar is profitable. In Brazil, for instance, cane is also used to produce ethanol. The sugarcane residue, bagasse, which we throw away, is used to make papers, animal feed and disposable food containers.

We must look at the structure of the industry from the farmer to the market. The best way is to remove the cartels and brokers and give sugar and coffee farmers a say in their crop. The tea sector has shown that we can have our tea in peace and not in pieces.

Mr Nyakera is the chairman of National Tea Sector Stabilization Task Force and patron of Kenya Coffee Planters - Murang’a Chapter. [email protected]


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