Adopt simple tea picking machines, farmers urged

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua with CS Energy Davis Chirchir and Kericho Governor Eric Mutai visit Mr Samson Birgen at his tea farm in Keben Village, Belgut Constituency, Kericho County during the 3-day tea reform conference.

Photo credit: DPPS

Stakeholders in the tea industry want the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) to put in place measures that would enable farmers to adopt mechanisation in plucking of green leaf so as to lower production costs.

Experts, farmers and processors said there is a need for a radical shift in the production lines, both at the farm and the factory, so as to put more money in farmers’ pockets.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, who chaired the two-day tea sector reforms conference in Kericho, heard that small-scale growers are incurring huge losses due to the sky-rocketing production costs.

Speaking after the forum, Mr Gachagua said a technical committee will be formed to develop a plan of action. “The committee will delineate all the issues —submissions and recommendations — into administrative, policy and legislative categories. The team will afterwards develop a plan of action and roll out the activities as required,” he said.

 “Small-scale tea growers are at the bottom of the pyramid with the high cost of operations and production costs passed on to them. This is an inverted pyramid that is economically against the farmer, which has to change,” he said.

Mr Gachagua committed to intervene with the National Treasury to ensure funding to the Tea Research Institute resumes.

The institute, based in Kericho, has not received funding from the government in the past 10 years, with workers only being paid salaries, but no funds allocated for research work, which is the core function of the institute that falls under the Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organization.

Kericho: Irate members of the public torch tea plucking machines

A shift from manual plucking of tea to mechanisation is expected to cut costs for the small-scale growers by a minimum of Sh3 per kilogramme of green leaf, according to industry players.

Small-scale growers currently pay Sh8 per kilo of green leaf to the casual workers who pluck the leaves against Sh16 per kilo they earn from KTDA.

Although multinationals use large mechanised equipment, small-scale tea growers were urged to use small machines, particularly shears, that are cost-effective and productive.

The proposals put KTDA in a dilemma as it has over the years rooted for manual plucking of green leaf, with two leaves and a bud being the standard measure of quality tea.

“What has made tea from West of Rift and Eastern region fetch different prices in the Mombasa Tea Auction is embracing of the policies on quality plucking of tea with critical focus on two leaves and a bud that produces premium made tea,” said KTDA chairman David Ichohi .

“If the small-scale farmers earn less than the tea pickers, it raises the question: who is the largest shareholder of the farms and the investments? Things have to change for the better,” Kericho Governor Erick Mutai said.

Dr Mutai and his colleagues Stephen Sang (Nandi), Wisley Rotich (Elgeyo-Marakwet) and Cecily Mbarire (Embu) said counties are keen to implement reforms in the sector.

“It is heartbreaking that small-scale tea growers earn less than Sh8 per kilogramme of green leaf supplied to KTDA factories yet the sector is one of Kenya’s leading foreign exchange earner, in the same league with tourism and diaspora remittances,” Dr Mutai said.

 Ms Mbarire said counties will work with KTDA to have cess money used in maintenance of key roads in tea-growing areas.

Mr Sang added:  “The prevailing global market prices unfortunately do not reflect in the pockets of farmers. We need to be told who is taking the good money paid by the consumers. The cartels need to be cut off and the money saved channeled to the growers.”