Storm in a tea cup: Anti-tea plucking machine drive picks up momentum

Workers use a tea plucking machine at the Unilever Tea farm in Kericho on June 30, 2022. The introduction of tea plucking machines has rendered thousands of tea workers jobless and now, leaders want the government to intervene

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

The political push for multinational companies, especially in the Rift Valley region, to scale down the use of tea-plucking machines in favour of humans is gaining momentum.

The contentious issue, which is expected to disrupt operations in tea estates, dominated pre-election debates in the region and residents want politicians to keep the promises they made about it.

Also at the centre of the row is the demand to revise upwards the land lease fees and compel multinationals to pay an average of Sh10,000 per acre, up from the Sh1,300 currently charged.

James Finlay, Sotik Highlands Tea, Eastern Produce Tea Company of Kenya, Sasini Tea, Williamsons Tea Kenya and Unilever are some of the multinationals operating in the region that find themselves in the eye of a storm.

Kericho Governor Erick Mutai reignited the debate with a rallying call on members of the county assembly (MCAs) to prioritise the matter when the House starts sitting.

“I am appealing to the MCAs to prioritise the debate on the sticky issues on land lease and use of tea-plucking machines in the tea estates that has disadvantaged the local community and negatively affected business operations,” Dr Mutai said.

The renewal of 99-year land leases for multinationals a few years ago was roundly criticised, with the Bomet, Nandi and Kericho county governments, which hold the land in trust on behalf of local communities, claiming they were not involved.

Mr Simeon Hutchinson, James Finlay managing director, led the company’s top managers in a meeting with Dr Mutai earlier this month where land leases, tea-plucking machines and worker layoffs were discussed, but it did not bear much fruit.

Mr Hutchinson and his team promised to look into the issues raised by county officials and a follow-up meeting is expected to be held at a later date.

Tea-picking machines were at the core of the campaigns in the Kericho governor’s race and the issue was believed to have been one of the main reasons voters rejected former Energy Cabinet Secretary Charles Keter in the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party nominations on April 14.

Dr Mutai garnered126,038 votes against Mr Keter’s 60,342 in the UDA primaries. He was eventually elected on August 9, succeeding Prof Paul Chepkwony, who has bowed out of elective politics after serving two terms as governor.

But Mr Keter denied claims that he owns some of the tea-plucking machines, telling the Nation in an earlier interview that his protests against mechanisation in the industry were well documented.

“The Hansard reports in Parliament bear me witness in opposing the use of tea machines by multinationals. I have been wrongly accused by my political opponents as a beneficiary when I am not,” Mr Keter said.

Business enterprises have reported loss of business in the past two decades following the deployment of the machines, with real estate owners and those running retail outlets the most affected after tea workers were laid off.

Bomet Governor Hillary Barchok and his Nandi counterpart Stephen Sang also voiced their concerns over the machines.

Mr Sang tried to forcibly take over a multinational tea estate in which a senior politician is said to have majority shares.

The governor used a power saw to clear a section of the plantation, with residents cheering him on, but the matter ended up in court, with criminal charges brought against him.

Statistics show that deploying one stand-alone machine can replace 100 workers. One operated by two people does the work of 25 workers, with the contentious issue mutating over the past 15 years from a labour dispute to a political one.

Cotu secretary-general Francis Atwoli recently claimed that 200,000 direct and indirect jobs had been lost after tea-plucking machines were adopted across Kenya.

“If we are not careful, the economies of Bomet, Kericho, Nandi and Nyamira counties will grind to a halt with the increased deployment of tea-plucking machines by multinationals, leading to loss of jobs and diminishing purchasing power of the local communities,” Mr Atwoli said in Bomet in August.

But Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui has said the government would not fight mechanisation in the tea industry as it was impossible to curtail deployment of technology in business operations.

“Mechanisation in the tea industry is a global phenomenon in business operations that is aimed at maximising profits and enhancing profits at all levels. It is not practical for the government to fight it,” Mr Chelugui said in Kericho earlier this year.

Debate has raged over the monthly lease payments per acre that multinationals make, with critics saying this is a rip-off that contradicts the prevailing demand and supply forces in the market.

“We have repeatedly demanded that the fees be revised to more than Sh10,000 in line with the prevailing market prices, but we have not made much progress,” said Kapsoi MCA Paul Chirchir.

“We are hoping that the current county executive will work closely with the assembly to address this matter with finality.”

The National Land Commission (NLC) ordered in 2018 that the land owned by multinationals be resurveyed and returned to counties to hold it in trust for local communities.

The NLC also pushed for the land leases to be reviewed from 999 years to 99, but multinationals, through the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) moved to court to oppose the directives.

KTGA’s position is that the companies purchase and process green leaves from 26,191 smallholder farmers and paid inland rates to Bomet, Kericho, Nyamira and Nandi counties, apart from taxes levied by the national government.

Prof Chepkwony, the former governor, had petitioned the British government to compensate the Kipsigis and Talai communities who were forcibly evicted from their land between 1920 and 1924 to pave the way for multinationals to plant tea.

He claimed that human rights abuses including rape, torture and murder were committed by the British against members of the two communities during the eviction.