Tea quality: Multinationals under pressure to drop harvesting machines

Workers operate a tea picking machine in one of the privately owned tea plantations in Kericho.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • New push comes as multinational tea firms are embroiled in a row with county governments in tea-growing regions.
  • Hundreds of workers on tea farms have lost their jobs since the multinationals adopted the tea-harvesting machines.

Multinational tea companies are under pressure to revert to handpicking of tea amid arguments that using machines has compromised the quality of Kenyan tea and hurt its prices on the world market.

At the forefront in the campaign against machines is the Kenya Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU), which says research findings have established that tea-picking machines are the main reason Kenyan tea fetches poor returns.

The new push comes as multinational tea firms are embroiled in a row with county governments in tea-growing regions after the companies sacked more than 30,000 workers and replaced them with machines.

Governors in Nandi, Kericho, and Bomet counties have rejected the adoption of the machines, saying that no environmental assessment had been done and protesting the mass loss of jobs.

Hundreds of workers on tea farms have lost their jobs since the multinationals in Kericho, Nandi, Bomet and Nyamira counties adopted the tea-harvesting machines. The companies implemented about 90 per cent to 95 per cent use of the machines.

Governors want tea plantation owners to reinstate workers, including those sacked at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, pending an environmental assessment of the effect of the machines.

Tea farms with large holdings in the three counties that are at the centre of the standoff include Williamson Tea Kenya PLC and Eastern Produce Tea Company of Kenya.

Research findings

About 90 per cent of local tea is picked by tea machines in most parts of the Rift Valley, said KPAWU.

The union says it carried out research with buyers at the tea auction to establish why Kenyan tea continues to fetch low earnings on the international market. It revealed that tea picked by machines contained unwanted elements, because the machines pick up everything in the tea plantations.

The union buyers have complained about the quality delivered by multinationals to the Mombasa tea auction, where the produce is sold before being exported overseas.

KPAWU national chairman Eliakim Ochieng said further studies by the union established that countries such as Rwanda, whose tea is picked 100 percent manually, has a high quality and fetches high prices of up to the equivalent of Sh805 per kilo.

He faulted Kenya, whose tea sells for less than Sh460 per kilo at the auction, for not speaking out on the effects of using tea-picking machines, particularly on the compromised quality.

The officials noted that thousands of tea workers had been sacked and replaced by tea machines because companies are now paying Sh3 per kilo of the tea picked by machines. Previously, tea companies used to pay Sh16 per kilo to tea pickers.

The union has urged the government to impose heavy penalties and taxation on tea companies that insist on using machines to pick their tea, as it denies the country income.

KPAWU national organising secretary Henry Omasire said other East African countries have rejected the use of tea-picking machines and Kenya needs to follow suit.

Mr Omasire argues that one tea-harvesting machine handles work that could be done by 2,000 tea pickers a day.

The union leaders faulted governors and other elected leaders from tea-growing regions where multinationals operate, saying they have not opposed the machines strongly enough, even after thousands of workers lost their jobs.

The union has warned that Kenya risks being listed as a producer of poor-quality tea, as more buyers reject the product.

Multinationals defense

But the multinationals, through their Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA), recently explained that the high cost of tea production in Kenya and high wage bills forced companies to adopt new technology to cut operational costs.

KTGA chief executive officer Apollo Kiarie explained that when Covid-19 broke out in Kenya in 2020, many global companies had to shut down, but multinational tea firms in Kenya had to seek alternative methods of reducing high operational costs to remain in business and that saw the introduction of tea-picking machines.

KPAWU says Kenya can still earn high income from the crop if tea workers continue picking the leaves.

“Tea from Rwanda is selling at $7 while Kenyan tea is selling at less than $4 per kilo, yet Kenya is a leading producer of black tea on the international market,” Mr Ochieng said.

KPAWU warned that unless the multinationals agree to revert to handpicking tea, the prices would continue declining because of the compromised quality.

“For anything to improve, large-scale tea companies in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya must agree to go back to tea picking through tea workers,” he said.

The latest push comes as workers demand an urgent meeting with tea companies to discuss working conditions and the terms for workers handling tea machines. They say they are being exploited because KPAWU has not signed a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with tea companies.