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Tea agency pushes tea growers into poverty

Thursday October 10 2019

Tea farmers

Tea farmers queue to receive their bonuses at a sacco branch in Othaya last year. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG 

MUCHEMI WACHIRA
By MUCHEMI WACHIRA
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In the rural villages of Mt Kenya region the amount of money paid to tea pickers per kilo equals the amount of money paid by KTDA to farmers.

In essence, tea farmers with no family labour hardly get any money at the end of the month since it all goes to pay tea pickers.

Farmers are forced to wait for the second payment, which KTDA calls bonus, but when the payments drop like they did this year, the growers are left at a loss.

LABOUR SCARCITY

How farmers are supposed to make money out of this crop is a puzzle.

Pundits blame it on scarcity of labour force in rural areas, thanks to urban migration after the collapse of the tea economy.

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Unable to get any regular monthly income from tea, most farmers have now turned to dairy farming and other promising crops such as macadamia.

At best the farmers continue to be hopeful and at worst they have started uprooting the cash crop to free their land for other economic activities.

When they are not being blackmailed by tea pickers, they are milked dry by KTDA; a marketing agent that has adopted a management style which farmers say is exploitative and manipulative.

“Here in Kirinyaga, the tea pickers have formed a trade union of a kind,” observes Francis Gakuya, 74, of Mutira area. Mr Gakuya told the Nation that whenever KTDA increases prices of tea for farmers, they also raise their labour cost.

Mr Gakuya had initially vowed to uproot his 1,500 tea bushes but on second-thought he decided to hand them over to his wife hoping that prices will one day improve.

GLOBAL PRICES

But with the fluctuating global prices, oversupply, over-pricing of insurance, fertiliser and transportation of tea to auction houses, chances are that he might give up — just like Michael Githaiga in Othaya, Nyeri County. In May, Mr Githaiga was captured in a video that went viral uprooting his tea bushes.

To the people of Othaya, and other tea growing areas of Mount Kenya region, what Mr Githaiga was doing was nothing unusual.

He was only bold enough to do what most farmers fear to do as most are not sure if the law that prohibits them from uprooting tea is still in force.

Previously, farmers had no say on the tea crop and could not uproot bushes thanks to the Tea Act (Cap 343) which expressly outlawed the act. This was replaced by the Crops Act of 2013 which is silent on the issue. The cost of hiring pickers has turned out to be the biggest impediment to tea farming in the region. The picker is paid Sh12 per kilo of leaf plucked, while KTDA has been paying farmers Sh16 for the same quantity.

NAPIER GRASS

The Sh4 the grower is left with after meeting labour costs mainly goes to meet the cost of fertiliser and paying labour for pruning the bushes.

“After all deductions, I am only able to make Sh2.50 for every kilo I deliver,” said a farmer in Othaya who gets barely Sh1,200 per month from the 500 tea bushes on his half-an-acre plot. At the end of the year, he said, he will earn a bonus of not more Sh11,000.

The farmer is among those uprooting their tea bushes. He wants to replace them with either napier grass or macadamia trees.

Like him, most tea farmers here own an average of half an acre to one acre of land.

They say the agency, which became a private company in 2000, has ended up alienating the shareholders.

BLACKMAIL

With the economy of central Kenya in limbo, the youth have moved to urban centres in search of opportunities and tea pickers have taken advantage of this acute shortage of labour to blackmail the farmers.

After a task force appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2015 pointed out the high cost of labour, KTDA has come up with a new hand-held battery-operated plucking machine that is currently being piloted at two tea farms in Kangaita in Kirinyaga and Kagochi in Nyeri.