The Kenya Tea Development Agency will start using tea plucking machines in two of its farms in a pilot project to determine the viability of the kits.
The agency has called for tenders for supply of hand-held, battery operated mini tea harvesting machines in a move that has drawn protest from the Central Organisation of Trade Unions and could spark another round of confrontation between it and the workers’ representatives.
The machines will used at the agency’s Kang’aita and Kagochi farms and could be introduced to farms that serve 69 factories
The gadgets, which are currently mainly used by multinationals, are considered cheaper to run and can pluck more leaves than humans.
“We are going to pilot these machines in some of our farms and after which we can make a decision based on the outcome of the piloting,” said a senior KTDA official who sought anonymity.
The move implies that the agency is keen on introducing plucking machines to cut production costs. The KTDA produces over 60 per cent of the country’s tea and serves more than 600,000 small- scale farmers. It also manages 65 tea factories, making it the largest seller of the commodity at the Mombasa auction.
The machines have been credited for precise picking of tea because they only pluck two leaves and a bud at a time for quality produce.
Multinational tea company officials reckon the machines are economical and profitable because they require fewer workers.
Companies in Kericho, Sotik, Kisii and Nandi were the first to introduce these machines in the country.
In 2010, the tea workers’ union accused the multinationals of going against an agreement it entered with the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) to have the kits introduced only at three per cent on experimental basis.
The workers’ union, the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU), said about 10,000 workers had been replaced by the machines in companies like Unilever Tea, James Finlay, George Williamson and Sotik Tea in 2010.