Calls mount for controversial KTDA director John Chebochok to step down

John Chebochok

Mr John Chebochok. He has been elected as a Kenya Tea Development Agency zonal director in Kericho County.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The board of Tegat/Toror tea factory has asked Mr John Chebochok, whose election as Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) zonal director has caused a storm in the tea industry, to resign.

His resignation, according to the board, would save small tea growers from losing business with two major multinational tea companies - Liptons Teas and Infusions and James Finlays - who have stopped buying tea from the factory in protest.

His fate now rests with the factory's shareholders who will gather for a special general meeting on July 18, 2024, to approve or reject the elected directors; John Chebochock (Ainamoi), Kemboi Geoffrey Kipkirui (Kapsaos zone), Philiph Kipkoech (Mosop zone), Japeth Chepkwony (Kapsuser zone), Chepkirui Korir (Sosiot zone) and Evans Kiplangat (Waldai zone).

Mr Chebochok's troubles began with the broadcast of a BBC documentary in February 2023 in which he was caught on an undercover video making sexual advances towards female workers and job seekers at James Finlays Tea Kenya, where his private company was contracted to provide services.

He was among the managers and supervisors at the multinational tea estates - Ekaterra Plc and James Finlays - captured in the BBC investigation, which has led to the companies introducing a series of measures to curb worker exploitation in the future. The perpetrators have been suspended from their jobs to pave the way for investigations.

 "As a board, we are asking him (Mr Chebochok) to do the honourable thing and resign for the sake of the farmers who stand to lose business as a result of the storm that has erupted in the tea sector over the past week," said Mr Japeth Chepkwony, the board chairman of Tegat/Toror Tea Factory.

Speaking after chairing a board meeting on Thursday, July 4, Mr Chepkwony appealed to stakeholders to be patient while the matter is sorted out to put an end to the furore that has focused attention on KTDA over trade and sexual exploitation.

"The authority to appoint directors rests solely with the shareholders who will exercise that right on July 18 (Thursday)...We trust that our shareholders will uphold the reputation and integrity by appointing directors of credible character and good standing," Mr Chepkwony said on Wednesday.

"We apologise to our tea buyers, tea brokers and stakeholders for any confusion caused. Rest assured, we are taking appropriate steps to address this matter and reiterate our unwavering commitment to ethical conduct and adherence to the rule of law," Mr Chepkwony said, flanked by board members.

Stakeholders have been mounting pressure on him to quit the post because of the negative publicity it has generated locally and globally, jeopardising the leading position Kenyan tea has enjoyed in the export market over the years.

This comes as the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has sought to absolve itself of blame over Mr Chebochok's clearance for the post and his subsequent election as a director, which has been challenged by various stakeholders in the industry.

The IEBC says Mr Chebochok submitted all the required documents as stipulated in the election manual before being cleared to contest, including a police clearance certificate, and that there were no complaints against his candidature at the nomination stage and after he was elected as a director.

The commission said it had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Tea Board of Kenya (TBK) to conduct elections in 54 smallholder tea estates in 19 counties on June 28 and 29.

"The checklist stipulated that a valid certificate of good conduct issued by the National Service Criminal Investigations Department would suffice as proof of a candidate's good character," said Marjan Hussein Marjan, the IEBC chief executive officer.

"In the present case, Mr John Chebochok presented a valid Certificate of Good Conduct and therefore qualified as a person of good standing in terms of the provisions of the Articles of Association of Tegat/Toror Tea Factory Company," the IEBC said in the statement issued on Thursday.

A Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) was formed with a mandate to hear and determine complaints against the shortlisted candidates for the positions, with hearings held on June 14 and 19, 2024.

According to the IEBC manual, a party filing a complaint was supposed to pay Sh5,000 within 24 hours of the shortlisting of candidates on June 14.
"There was no formal record of any complaint against Mr Chebochok's candidature within the stipulated period," said Mr Marjan.

He said the manual for the election of factory managers provides for a post-election dispute resolution mechanism, with disputes arising to be addressed within 48 hours of the declaration of results.

"The aggrieved party is expected to provide evidence, serve the other party(ies) and pay a non-refundable fee of Sh10,000 into the relevant bank account. To date, no aggrieved person has complied with these requirements," said Mr Marjan.

Mr Marjan said the Returning Officer, Mike Kipngetich Langat, had strictly adhered to the election manuals as ordered by the court on April 22, 2024.

KTDA said it had no role in the election because the IEBC's responsibilities included vetting candidates, receiving nomination papers, printing ballot papers, voting and tallying results.

"KTDA has no role to play in the administration of the smallholder tea factory directors' election except for the administrative purposes of providing farmers' details and polling stations. The responsibility of conducting the elections has been given to the IEBC," KTDA said.

Mr Bruno Laine, the Chief Supply Chain Officer of Lipton Teas and Infusions, has announced that the company has suspended the purchase of tea from the Tegat/Toror factory with immediate effect.

Lipton said that allowing Mr Chebochok to stand and subsequently win the election "undermines His Excellency President William Ruto's ambition for Kenyan tea to be recognised globally as a hallmark of quality".

"Our joint work with the (Kenyan) government and shared interest in the success of Kenya Origin tea as a symbol of sustainable quality means it is imperative that the tea sector in Kenya upholds the highest standards of ethics and social responsibility in the global marketplace," Laine said in the letter dated July 1, 2024.

Ben Woolf, Jame Finlay's Global Corporate Affairs Director, also confirmed that the company had suspended purchases of tea from the factory until Mr Chebochok's election was revoked.

"Critically, allowing Mr Chebochok to hold a position of authority in KTDA serves to undermine the excellent work being done by many stakeholders in Kenya and globally to address the issue of sexual and gender-based violence on tea farms," said Mr Woolf.

"We call on all our tea buyers, stakeholders and partners to allow us to work with all relevant stakeholders and authorities to address the concerns that have been raised about his (Chebochok's) appointment due to the legal and procedural complexities," KTDA said.

Mr Chebochok has repeatedly evaded journalists and refused to discuss the matter, most recently last Sunday in Kericho when he failed to turn up for a scheduled press conference at the Sahara Hotel. He has since failed to respond to phone calls and text messages from journalists.

In his acceptance speech on June 29, he made no reference to the cases surrounding his candidacy and the sex scandal hanging over his head.

“I will work hard and ensure I do not betray the enormous trust bestowed on me by small-scale tea growers in Ainamoi who have picked me as their zonal director” Mr Chebochok said after being declared winner.