How tech can make small tea farms more lucrative

Ben Lang, the chief executive of Mobile Edge, a technology company that has come up with a tea-picking gadget for smallholder farmers dubbed Mchai.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • One of the reasons the tea sector is ailing is the high cost of production at the farm and factory levels.
  • With machine picking, a farmer first does hard pluck by hand, then lightly skiffs (prunes) the field to ensure that a good table is formed from where to carry out continuous normal plucking.
  • Technology can lead to redundancies but it creates other value jobs in the long run.
  • With the machine, one is guaranteed timely plucking during flush times when labour is a constraint and this in turn will increase productivity.

Ben Lang is the chief executive of Mobile Edge, a technology company that has come up with a tea-picking gadget for smallholder farmers dubbed Mchai.

He spoke to Brian Okinda on how to boost production and fortunes of the troubled sector

Q1. The country’s tea sector is among the most profitable earners for the economy, yet it is facing numerous challenges. Is technology the panacea for the sector’s challenges?

Yes. One of the reasons the tea sector is ailing is the high cost of production at the farm and factory levels.

Technology can help reduce  costs by more than 70 per cent. For instance, hand-picking yields an average of 40kg per plucker per day at Sh10-Sh13 depending on the region.

If a farmer picks 1,000 kilos per month, it costs him between Sh10,000 and Sh13,000 in labour alone. Machine plucking, on the other hand, can yield an average of 40kg per hour or 240-320kg per day at a cost of Sh3-Sh5 per kilo. The saving is enormous. 

Q2. When should a farmer start picking tea leaves and how effectively and often should the picking be done?

Manual picking is done two to three times a week. For machines, it is a nine-day cycle, which is the same as three times a week.

With machine picking, a farmer first does hard pluck by hand, then lightly skiffs (prunes) the field to ensure that a good table is formed from where to carry out continuous normal plucking.

Pruning is done to remove excess foliage, which leads to poor shoot generation. It takes between three and four weeks before plucking.

Q3. What issues stifle the adoption of technology in the tea sector and how can these be addressed?

First, there are quality fears. Kenya upholds two leaves and a bud quality standard, which is a very high bar to beat.

Previous machine technologies could not attain this. The huge number of smallholder farmers (700,000) was also a factor.

Without proper monitoring, the quality tea could suffer. Nonetheless, we must consider the fact that Kenya is the only country that uses 70 per cent manual plucking in the world, with high quality tea yet still they get lower prices in the export market. The solution is in adoption of technology.

Second is unfair trade practices. Large tea estates use very big machines that yield low quality green leaf.

To mitigate this failure, they refuse to support their smallholder out-growers to adopt machine harvesting so that they can use their green leaf to blend with their low-quality leaf before processing.

Third, there is the issue of affordability and return on investment. Most plucking machines are out of reach for small-scale farmers.

But there are newer technologies that are affordable, efficient and cheaper to maintain.

Q4. Tea workers have claimed that plucking technologies could eventually cost them their jobs. What is your take on this assertion?

Technology can lead to redundancies but it creates other value jobs in the long run. Many tea pickers contracted by farmers have created a parasitic relationship that takes away 90 per cent of the producers’ earnings.

The same tea pickers can adopt the machine and use it for contract tea picking all year round. This way, there are no acute job losses.

Q5. You have a new tea-picking technology. Tell us something about this technology and how farmers can benefit from it.

The machine is named Mchai. It is a one user machine that uses a rechargeable lithium battery that will enable one to pick tea for eight hours a day but yields more.

The machine is faster, thus one plucks a bigger area. With the machine, one is guaranteed timely plucking during flush times when labour is a constraint and this in turn will increase productivity.

Lastly, not much crop is lost due to machine plucking as one can pluck an average of two times in a month.

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