Multinational tea firms threaten to relocate to Rwanda as row intensifies
The fight over the introduction of tea-plucking machines in the South Rift region may see multinational companies relocate to Rwanda.
Kericho Governor Erick Mutai has stated that the multinational companies have plans to relocate to Rwanda.
"They have threatened to leave for Rwanda. I'm telling them they should have done that yesterday," said Dr Mutai.
He said since the firms are not offering jobs to locals, they are of no use in the region.
He added, "They're not remitting enough revenue to counties and are paying peanuts as the lease."
The governor wants the land lease fees charges raised to the multinationals. Rwanda tea has over the years been gaining global acceptance due to its quality.
Tea clowns grown in Rwanda were developed by the Kericho-based Tea Research Institute (TRI) and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (Kalro).
Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) was contracted to manage Rwanda tea before it was recently ousted by Eketerra Plc (formerly Unilever Tea Company).
Comparatively, Kenya produced an estimated 540,000 metric tons of tea in 2021 with 138,800 metric tons in the first quarter of 2022.
Japan, Britain, Poland, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt and Sudan are some of the countries that buy Kenyan tea.
Most of the multinational firms operating in the region have roots in Britain.
Several sources at multinational tea companies who did not speak on the record said the debate on mechanisation was taking a dangerous turn.
The sources warned politicians against inciting the locals against the firms. Criminals have taken advantage of the conflict to harvest tea in the estates.
"There is a lot of concern in the local and foreign markets on the development of the tea sector in Kenya. If we are not careful, this will hit the country very hard in the coming days. We need to resolve this conflict and stabilize the market," said a senior manager in one of the multinationals.
Another source said, "We may be looking at this as a local issue, but it is a big international dimension and we expect the national government to come in and deal with the issue."
James Finlay, Sasini, Sotik Highlands Tea, Eastern Produce Tea Company of Kenya, Williamson Tea Kenya Plc, and Ekaterra Plc are some of the multinationals operating in the region.
Since the torching of 10 machines at Eketerra tea estates in Kericho county three weeks ago, 35 youths were arrested in Bomet County on Thursday after they were found harvesting tea at an estate in Konoin constituency.
Central Organization of Trade Unions Secretary-General Francis Atwoli said more than 200,000 jobs have been cut due to mechanisation.
Ms Florence Bore, the Cabinet Secretary nominee for Labour and Social Protection, who is from the South Rift, is expected to address the conflict.
"It will be a delicate balancing act for Ms Bore as she will seek to balance the needs of the locals and those of the investors who are seeking to make money from their investments," said Mr Bernard Siele, a resident of Londiani.
The row in the region is seen as a litmus test to President William Ruto's government to protect local and foreign investors.
"There is a need to embrace value addition in the tea industry to create employment opportunities and create wealth for the people," Dr Ruto said in Kericho last week.
Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has promised to mediate in a bid to address the issues affecting the industry.
"I'm aware of the problems related to tea mechanization. Those issues will be addressed," Mr Gachagua said.