Tea leaves theft goes on as leaders urge end to attacks

General Service Unit officer on patrol in Brooke trading centre in Kericho County

General Service Unit officers on patrol at the Brooke trading centre in Kericho County on May 24, 2023, following demonstrations and the burning of tea-plucking machines at Ekaterra estates in the area. 

Photo credit: Vitalis Kimutai | Nation Media Group

Illegal harvesting of green leaves in multinational tea companies continued unabated in the South Rift region, days after the government threatened to arrest politicians and business people fuelling the criminal acts.

“While the police, including those from the General Service Unit, are patrolling the highways, the residents are harvesting green leaves in the tea estates ... It is a sad turn of events,” said a local administrator who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki last Wednesday said business persons and politicians were behind the demonstrations, invasion of the estates, illegal harvesting and tea plucking machines.

Prof Kindiki stated that the perpetrators were known and were being sought to record statements. He revealed that 11 suspects had been arrested. He confirmed that nine tea plucking machines and a tractor were torched on Monday last at the Ekaterra tea estate, while a police vehicle had been burnt last week by the youths who invaded the James Finlays estates in Bomet County.

Prof Kindiki who spoke a day after Ekaterra announced it had suspended its operations indefinitely with the fate of 16,000 jobs hanging in the balance, said the politicians and businessmen who will be found culpable will be prosecuted.

“The violence, looting, burning and destruction of public and private property, disruption of daily activities and assaulting security officers are criminal acts that must cease,” Prof Kindiki stated.

He added that “to avert a repeat of these acts of lawlessness, security agencies in Kericho and Bomet counties shall enforce the law firmly and decisively”.

James Finlays Kenya and Ekaterra tea Plc are the main targets for the criminal activities, with the government deploying anti-riot police in a bid to restore order. Ekaterra announced that it had incurred losses worth over Sh170 million since the chaos began, especially in Konoin, Ainamoi, Belgut and Bureti constituencies.

The East Africa Tea Trade Association, through its chairman Dr Arthur Sewer, expressed concern over the rising insecurity in the tea estates saying, it posed a threat to Kenya’s image in the international community.

“The daylight invasion of the estates and destruction of property is sending wrong signals to the global community on how foreign investors are treated in Kenya,” Dr Sewe said.

“The tea plantations in Kenya account for 40 per cent of the volume of tea traded in the tea auction. If they decide to stop presenting their tea in the auction, we foresee a catastrophic impact on the Mombasa Tea Auction,” he added.

Area leaders, including senators Aaron Cheruiyot (Kericho) and Hillary Sigei (Bomet) and governors Erick Mutai (Kericho), Hillary Barchok (Bomet) as well as MPs Benjamin Langat (Ainamoi), Nelson Koech (Belgut), Justus Kemei (Soin Sigowet) and members of county assemblies have called for an end to the attacks and dialogue among the parties involved.

During a security meeting with administrators and the police at the ACK hall in Kericho town on Wednesday they asked the youth to stop the invasion of tea estates.

Mr Cheruiyot said politicians and administrators had agreed to immediately open dialogue that will bring together elders, leaders, youth representatives and management of the tea companies.

Dr Mutai revealed that the leaders had agreed that security agencies will deal with those inciting people to violence.

“We have apologised for our previous utterances that may have fuelled the stand-off and invasion of the tea estates. We are calling on our people to stop the invasions, burning of machines and allow the investors to go about their business,” Dr Mutai stated.

“We have agreed as leaders to tone down on public utterances relating to the stand-off in the tea industry and that any of us politicians who will go against this will be arrested and prosecuted,” Mr Langat said.