A trade war pitting private investors, farmers and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) has intensified with Meru County Commissioner Wilfred Nyagwanga ordering a crackdown on tea hawking.
The order comes in the wake of a court battle between Murang’a farmers and government agencies enforcing the ban on tea hawking.
Last week, KTDA managers from Meru, led by the regional director Paul Ringera, met the county commissioner and resolved to launch a crackdown on anyone transporting tea outside designated factories.
At the centre of the storm is Njeru Industries, a private factory in Meru Town which has been accused of promoting tea hawking, theft and harvesting of low quality and rejected leaf.
KTDA also accuses the firm of operating a black tea processing line without a license.
But Njeru Industries managing director Henry Njeru said his company had obtained court orders barring anyone from preventing his workers from buying tea.
He accuses KTDA of using its monopoly to kill competition.
“We pay up to Sh30 per kilo and pay according to the farmer’s terms.
"Any attack on private investors, who are establishing manufacturing units and paying farmers above the market rate is clearly an act of economic sabotage. You cannot brand farmers hawkers when they decide where to sell their produce,” Mr Njeru said.
“The KTDA managers are trying to use criminal incidents which can be handled by police to kick us out of business.
There has been theft of tea over the years. It is unfair for KTDA to brand us hawkers yet we have invested over Sh350 million in setting up a processing plant.”
He said about 1,000 farmers had signed leaf supply agreements with his company without being coerced.
Farmers in Murang’a, Nyeri, Kirinyaga and Meru counties are being lured by private factories offering Sh25 per kilo, compared to Sh15 paid by KTDA.
The private buyers are also paying farmers in cash.
“Tea hawking is promoting theft from farms and during transportation. The farmers are selling to the private factory yet they have an agreement which binds them to supply to KTDA only.
"This affects their commitments in form of loans and farm inputs advanced by KTDA,” Mr Ringera said.
He said hawking would affect the quality of Kenyan tea and ultimately its price in the world market.
In Murang’a, farmers have resorted to selling their tea at night following arrests. Some have been charged in court.
A farmer, who sought anonymity, told the Nation they will continue selling their tea to private companies since the pay is good.
“We pick the tea during the day and keep it in our houses. We sell the tea leaves at night to avoid police patrols,” he said.
Following the arrests, tea farmers from Kanyenya-ini sued the DPP, Kangema OCPD and OCS and the Attorney-General for obstructing them from selling their crop to their preferred buyers. KTDA is enjoined as an interested party.