Tea Farming in Kenya

Kenya is Africa’s leading tea producer and fourth in the world behind India, China and Sri Lanka. Black tea is the country’s leading agricultural foreign exchange earner.

Kenya is a major producer of the best tea in the world. It has more than 110,000 hectares of land under tea. Tea is grown in the highlands where there is adequate rainfall and low temperatures.

The tea industry is divided between small farms and large estates. The small – scale sector, with more than 260,000 farmers, is controlled by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).

The estates, consisting of 60-75 private companies, operate their own factories. In 2012,  the industry recorded a decrease of 2.2 per cent. Tea exports  amounted to about Kshs 109 billion in 2011.

Tea is now the country’s  leading foreign exchange earner, with export earnings standing at about Kshs 110 billion up from Kshs 33 billion in 2003, a 230 per cent increase. Tea output accounts for about 11 per cent of agriculture’s share of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The area under tea has also increased from 131,000 hectares in 2003 to 188,000 hectares, while production has increased from 293,000 metric tonnes to 378,000 metric tonnes.

Smallholder tea production started in 1969, and produces more tea than large scale farmers.

KTDA manages all smallholding tea factories and is the largest single producer in the world. The agency manages more than 60 per cent of Kenya’s production.

The industry supports directly and indirectly approximately five million people, making it one of the leading sources of livelihoods in Kenya.

KTDA manages 65 processing  factories located across all tea growing counties. These factories are owned by 54 tea factory companies, whose shareholders are the more than 260,000 small scale tea farmers who also supply leaf.

Kenya tea is free of pests or diseases, so the farms are not sprayed with any chemical except fertiliser application to replenish soil nutrients.

Tea growing areas receive  12 hours of sunlight daily and between 1,200-1,400 mm of rainfall spread throughout the year. This ensures that the supply of tea, both in quality and quantity, is consistent throughout the year.

There are about 50  varieties of tea in Kenya, which are developed to suit the seven growing regions. With each new variety developed, chemical properties are enhanced, making our tea to be associated with health attributes.

Over 90 per cent of Kenya’s tea is hand picked. Only the finest top two leaves and a bud are used for tea production and this contributes to the excellent aroma in the tea cup.

Kenya’s tea factories are certified with the internationally acclaimed standards (ISO 22000; HACCP; Rain Forest Alliance, Fair Trade GMP). This has made Kenyan tea competitive in the World market.

Although the industry faces various challenges, such as high cost of production, poor infrastructure,and low level of value addition and product diversification, it has continued to post impressive results. In 2010/2011 small-scale farmers received a total of Kshs 40.5 billion as payment popularly known as bonus, compared to Kshs 38.2 billion in 2009/ 2010 financial year. In the previous year, the payout Was Kshs 25.4 billion.

The impressive earnings  are attributed to stable prices, favourable exchange rates, efficient management of factory processes and effective cost management through automation of field and factory operations.

Tea farmers, however, earned 10 per cent less per kilo of tea delivered to their factories in 2013 compared to 2011. This is despite the total earnings increasing to Kshs 69 billion from Kshs 61 billion the previous year. The income reduced because of higher volumes of tea delivered to the 65 factories managed by KTDA. Tea output is projected to drop by 10 per cent due to bad Weather and the rising cost of inputs.

The political crisis in the key export markets of Egypt and Syria, coupled with a stronger shilling and higher tea supply in the international market, depressed prices in 2012. Farmers  earned a total of Kshs 35.6 billion as bonus at an average rate of Kshs 31.65 per kilo of green leaf, compared to Kshs 33.9 the previous year.

Tea prices at the Mombasa auction dropped significantly in July, August and September, 2013 because of huge supply in the international market. Locally, the exchange rates also contributed to lower prices. The rate stood at $3.20per kilo before dropping to $2.50 in 2012. The rate now stands $2.30per kilo.

Tea Growing Areas in Kenya

The actual areas of tea growing can be divided into the highlands on the east and west of the Rift Valley. The western highlands growing areas include:

  1. Kericho
  2. Nandi
  3. Kakamega
  4. Cherangani Hills

The eastern highlands growing areas include

  1. Nyambene Hills in Nyambene
  2. Nyeri
  3. Murang’a
  4. Kiambu
  5. Thika
  6. Maragua

Conditions Necessary for Tea Growing in Kenya

The areas discussed above experience the following geographical conditions which have made them suitable for tea growing.

  1. Climate – The areas experience cool to wann temperatures averaging 21°C during the growing season of not less than eight months. The annual rainfall received is over 1,500 mm well distributed throughout the year. The warm and wet conditions permit rapid leaf production and increase the number of annual pickings.
  2. Highlands Conditions – The areas are favourable as they lie at high altitudes of 1000 m to 1700 m above sea level. The highlands and hill slopes have offered good natural drainage ideal for tea farming.
  3. Soils – The soils are deep well drained and slightly acidic. Most of these areas are volcanic highlands where volcanic rocks have been weathered to form deep fertile soils e.g. Cherangani and Nyambene Hills.
  4. Shade – Tea does well in areas which are shielded from strong sunlight and violent winds. In the tea growing areas of Kenya there are many isolated trees on the plantation, while some plantations are on the margins of forests. This offers protection not only to the tea but also to the pickers.
  5. Labour  – Tea cultivation and processing are basically labour intensive. Field preparation, weeding, pruning and picking goes on throughout the year. Female labour is preferable for picking since it requires tenderness, skill and patience.
  6. Processing Factories – Tea leaves are highly perishable. Consequently tea factories must be located within the growing area for quick processing.
  7. Transport Infrastructure – Tea growing areas need to have good passable roads. This is to ensure that picked leaves reach the factory fast before the quality deteriorates. .
  8. Availability of Capital – Tea growing is capital intensive. A large capital outlay is required in picking and for the cultivation.

Tea Cultivation in Kenya

Cultivation is either on small holdings or plantations. The land is first cleared. Tea seedlings or cuttings are raised for about 18 months in a nursery and when they attain a height of 3’0 cm, they are transplanted. Tea is usually planted in contoured rows 1.5 m apart. Weeding, manuring and pruning are carried out at regular intervals. The first picking occurs between 2-4 years after planting the crop, but full bearing is reached after five years. Picking is carried out fortnightly for approximately a century before being uprooted and new plants grown.

The main tea species grown in Kenya are the Aswan variety commonly grown in Sri lanka and India and the China variety.

Tea Processing in Kenya

  1. When the bushes are ready only the two top leaves and a bud (flush) are picked.
  2. The green leaves are transported in airy baskets to a collecting centre for sorting out and weighing.
  3. The weighed leaves are transported by lorries fitted with bags to the processing factories where they are weighed again.
  4. The tea leaves are then spread out on long wire trays.
  5. The leaves are then dried by blasting of warm air from underneath the trays. The leaves are then passed through a_ set of rollers to chop them.
  6. The leaves are then placed in containers for fermenting, reducing tannic acid and changing the colour to grey brown.
  7. The leaves are then passed through a conveyor belt which takes them to a tunnel which is at a temperature of 100°C for roasting (drying) after which they turn black.
  8. The leaves are sifted, graded and tasted for classification.
  9. The graded tea is packed in tea chests for export and small packages for local market.

Tea Marketing in Kenya

Some of the tea is consumed locally while a huge amount is sold on the international market. The leading consumers of Kenyan tea are countries that make up the European Union such as Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands. Another major destination is the Middle East in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some exports are also made to African countries especially COMESA members such as Egypt and Sudan. Marketing of tea is done by the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA) which was founded in 1964. Apart from Marketing tea it also promotes production of tea among small scale farmers and sensitises them on high quality production of tea.

Achievements of KTDA

The overall success in the tea industry can be traced to the K.T.D.A. The authority brings together over 150,000 small scale farmers in the country. The total tea production has been greatly increased over the years.

  1. The KTDA accounts for over two thirds of the total leaf production in the country. The authority is responsible for a good percentage of foreign exchange earnings from tea.
  2. The KTDA has financed many tea manufacturing industries. These are spread out in the tea growing districts of Kisii. Nyamira, Vihiga, Kericho, Nandi, Trans Nzoia, Nyeri and Embu.
  3. The KTDA assists in marketing the tea. The farmers have a good bargaining base through the authority.
  4. The authority has aimed at high quality yields. This has ensured handsome prices for the farmers.
  5. They provide inputs to tea farmers e.g. fertilisers and seedlings.

Problems Facing Tea Farmers in Kenya

  1. Poor roads – The poor feeder roads in the tea growing areas lead to delays in collection and delivery of the green leaf hence causing wastage. This is worsened by the fact that tea is highly perishable and needs quick transportation to the processing factories.
  2. Delayed payments – In some instances, fanner payment for tea delivered is delayed. This coupled with mismanagement of funds lowers the fanners morale.
  3. Climate Hazards  - Climatic hazards, for example, prolonged droughts, hailstorms, lead to destruction of the crop. This lowers the quality and quantity of the yields.
  4. Pests and diseases – Pests and diseases such as the black tea thrip, red spider mites, weevils and beetles destroys crops hence reducing the farmer’s yields.
  5. Fluctuation in world Prices – The farmers also experiences fluctuation of prices in the world market which makes it difficult for them to plan ahead. High cost of farm input The production cost of tea is high. This is evident through the high prices of farm inputs which reduces the farmer’s profit margin. It also leads to low yields as some farmers cannot afford.
  6. Significance of Tea Farming – Tea fanning has led to a number of benefits to the economy of Kenya. These are:
  7. Foreign Exchange – Through the export of tea the country earns foreign exchange. Currently it is the country’s leading export crop.
  8. Creation of employment  - Many people are employed in the tea industry either in the factories or in the farms.
  9. Development of industries – Tea growing has contributed to industrial growth through the establishment of processing factories and packaging industries.
  10. Development of infrastructure – Transport lines have been constructed and existing ones improved to link the farms to the factories. This has led to improved infrastructure.

Tea Auction in Kenya

Africa Tea Brokers Ltd was the pioneer broker of the Kenya Tea Export Auction system initiated in November 1956 in Nairobi. It started on a very small scale and only limited quantities of secondary grades were auctioned every two weeks.

The bulk of Kenya’s tea production at the time was consigned to the London Auction with the United Kingdom being the most important importer of tea in the world.

Producers subsequently offered additional quantities at the auctions. Initially, only a few international buying concerns opened offices in Kenya, but as quantities increased, more international buyers joined.

It was then decided by producers and active members of the East African Trade Association that as was tea warehoused and shipped from Mombasa, it will be easier to control if export auctions were moved to the port town. This happened in 1969 and auctions were held weekly.

Mombasa is now the largest CTC auction centre in the world, offering up to 9.5 million kilograms a week and sometimes more during peak period.

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