Smallholder tea farmers in southwestern Kenya are finally getting recognition after the government recently revised laws governing the subsector. They are now getting better returns for their crops, having a say in who represents them and are being paid on time for what is the country's primary export.
The reforms put in place three months ago have created measures meant to cushion the farmers against exploitation.
What’s key is the change of the electoral systems of farmers’ representatives, otherwise known as directors, as well as the replacement of marketing rules covering tea, according to Nyamira County Commissioner Amos Mariba.
“The government intervened because the industry was on its death bed -- in fact, some had even threatened to uproot their tea crop,” Mariba told Africa Calling podcast reporter Stanley Ongwae.
Mariba says that the farmers need to follow up on their own regulations to ensure they have management that will improve their situation.
“Many factories had not conducted their annual general meetings, and that’s why the government wanted to provide an environment where the farmers who are the owners of the tea can elect their own directors,” says Mariba.
“The new directors are now taking control fully; we shall support them so that this sector can be revived,” he adds.
One director elected under the new regulations is Nelson Onduko Onyancha, who represents small-scale tea farmers from Kebirigo Tea Factory in Nyamira, one of the tea processing industries owned by the growers.
“The former directors were representing their interests. But this time, things are different,” says Onyancha, who says they will enforce the tea regulations.
“Corruption, we will fight it tooth and nail, so that they can benefit from their sweat of tea farming. Every gain, every benefit we accrue from the factory will go directly to the farmers,” he adds.
Small-scale tea farming activities in Nyanza and Western Kenya is representative of what is happening in Rift Valley, Central and Eastern Regions where tea is grown, mainly on a small scale.
In Kenya, small-scale tea farming accounts for more than 65 percent of the country’s total tea production, with the other portion produced by multinational companies.
Tea farmers were struggling
These gains help tea farmers like Esther Nyang’ara, who is up at six in the morning to start plucking tea leaves on her quarter acre farm. That’s 700 bushes, occupying nearly half of her total land in Chitago Village in Nyamira County where she lives with her husband and seven children.
“Even if it’s raining, I work the whole morning and afternoon to around 2pm. At times we wait for long up to dusk or even midnight before we sell our green tea. At the end of the exercise, I am very exhausted,” she tells Africa Calling.
Afterwards, Esther will transport the tea leaves to a tea buying center about three kilometres away. A designated buyer from a tea processing factory owned by farmers will weigh Esther’s green tea leaves alongside those from many other farmers and transport them to the factory where it will be processed.
In the past, the poor return for all the back-breaking work made the effort seem fruitless.
“The morning dew numbs your legs; other times you find yourself in total exhaustion after the day’s work…not that you have any food to eat after all this! It’s so little from the tea,” she said.
In neighbouring Karantini village, some 10 kilometres away, farmer Delvin Kwamboka says that before the reforms, the pay wasn’t enough.
“At the end of the month, I got a total of about 50 kilos of green tea, about 800 Kenyan shillings (six euros),” says Kwamboka.
“It wasn’t enough for school fees, soap, food and other needs,,” she adds.
One of the problems tea farmers encountered was the lag in payment by the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA), according to representative Nyamira.
“After the sales at the tea auction, the money was kept for almost two months before they paid farmers, which was taking too long,” says Nyamira.
Payment is now immediate after the crop is sold, a welcome change.
“Before, if a tea auctioneer sold tea belonging to Kebirigo Tea Factory Limited, he would keep the money in his account for two months. Who knows if they could be using the money for other uses before they reach to the farmers?” he adds.
Kenyan tea is primarily sold to Arab countries, major markets in Europe, earning more than US$1 billion from tea exports last year.
For farmer Nyang’ara, the better returns have helped her to diversify on her acre of land, dedicating one quarter of the farm to tea, and the rest to maize, finger millet, vegetables and her cow.
“I sell about six liters of milk every day. That’s 300 shillings — all this supplements tea earnings,” she says with a smile.