The green canopy that touches the sky in the horizon hugs the eye and soothes the soul, triggering one of the most beautiful sensations. The bushes stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions, underlining tea’s status as Kenya’s leading cash crop and the Kericho-Bomet belt its capital.
It should be teatime, but there’s no party here. Not for smallholders.
Beneath this picture of paradise, where multinational tea companies make billions, smallholder farmers here in Konoin — home to the highest concentration of tea bushes in Kenya — are reeling under poverty.
High school dropout rates and malnutrition are a blot on a region that produces much of the world’s most widely consumed beverage after water.
“Farmers are unable to provide for their families due to poor prices of green leaf, yet they have put their entire farms under the crop. Here, nearly everyone buys milk, vegetables and maize and they can’t cope given the small land sizes,” Mr Cheruiyot Baliach, a tea grower, tells us.
Smallholder earnings this season sunk to a five-year low, thanks to a cocktail of factors. Some internal and others external — including turmoil in the international market such as the Brexit anxiety in the UK and instability in Sudan and Pakistan.
Even with poor payments by Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) — the farmers are still holding on, hoping for a miracle.
The trouble with farmers, argues researcher Bill Ruto, is that many do not do the math. “Just as traditional pastoralists often pride themselves for the size of the horns of their cows rather than the price the animals will fetch in the market, many farmers are so intimately attached to their tea crop that you can’t do anything to dissuade them from it,” he says.
Some of them have taken to tea hawking as high production costs continue to suffocate them. Owing to financial pressure, many are now forced to sell their produce to local brokers, who pay in cash on delivery under a system dubbed “mong’irito” in the Kipsigis dialect.
Mong’irito — literally pick all you can get as opposed to the two leaves and a bud principle that KTDA enforces strictly — is a product of privateers within the tea chain who have set up factories to take advantage of the poor farmers. Whichever way, their fate is sealed.
Farmers who hawk their tea lose up to 50 per cent of their earnings as they get a one-off pay of Sh24 per kilo compared to KTDA’s average cumulative pay of Sh30 — which is still low.
Those who opt out of the KTDA system also miss the agency’s fertiliser, which it sells to farmers directly at Sh1,800 per 50kg bag.
While global fertiliser prices have been on the dip since 2011, tea farmers have never benefited from the same. Farmers are left to finance the picking, weeding and pruning of tea from their payments besides the 16 per cent VAT levied by the government. These deductions eat into profits, leaving little for the poor farmer.
KTDA levies factories an agency fee of 2.5 per cent and an insurance charge, which are passed on to small-scale farmers. There is also the corporate tax and county permits that have to be paid by the factories even though they were built entirely with contributions from small-scale tea growers.
The poor state of roads often causes delay in collection of the produce from buying centres that cost farmers up to 25 per cent in weight loss.
Reducing land sizes compounds farmers’ woes. With as small as half an acre, farmers put all their plots under tea although it does not make economic sense to plant less than two acres of the cash crop. The result is an oppressive environment whose effects include alcoholism and abject poverty.
So dire is the situation that the county government of Bomet has initiated a programme to encourage residents to diversify their agriculture.
“We are marketing dairy, poultry, avocado and passion farming, which can put more money in farmers’ hands and deal with malnutrition, which is a challenge in most parts of Konoin Sub-county,” Mr Julius Tuwei, the Bomet County Executive in charge of Agriculture, says.
Critics trace tea farmers’ woes to the ubiquitous KTDA, which started as a marketing agency, but which has since morphed into an “all-powerful hydra-headed monster.”
KTDA is now in banking, insurance, warehousing and trading, power generation as well as machine fabrication and maintenance. But the agency insists it is a friend and not an enemy of farmers.
“Consider the question of fertiliser, for instance. Where else can a farmer get fertiliser at such a price? KTDA allows farmers to farm smoothly and only wait for their earnings,” says Mr Benson Ngari, the KTDA director in charge of finance and strategy.
But fertiliser procurement within KTDA is perhaps the biggest scandal. The last time KTDA underwent public scrutiny, the audit report said that procurement of fertiliser was “not based on rational business planning, and more significantly, does not relate to either production or hectares under tea.”
It was also found that KTDA did not, at times, procure from the lowest bidders. While reporting this year’s revenue of Sh46.45 billion, a 25 drop from last year’s 62.35 billion, KTDA boss Lerionka Tiampati blamed tea hawking for reducing the amount of green tea in some factories which “adversely affected” operating capacity and quality.
This is not convincing to Mr Richard Yegon, a tea farmer at Kipyosit in Bomet East Sub-county, who last week uprooted his tea bushes in anger after farmers in the region got a second payment (known as bonus) of Sh18 down from last year’s Sh34.
“KTDA trades with our tea for the whole year, only to pay us this lowly. The myth around bonus needs to be unpacked,” she says, adding that he is moving into avocado and cabbages.
Mr Ruto, the researcher, speaks glowingly about alternatives to tea. “Consider Boma Rhodes. In three months, an acre can produce 270 bales that you sell at Sh270 each. This comes to Sh72,000 in three months. Because it can be harvested three times in a year this will come to Sh218,700,” he sketches.
On the other hand, tea farmers report an average earning of Sh100,000, before subtracting a host of expenditure that includes labour and fertiliser.
So, if tea is this toxic, why are more and more farmers growing it? New factories are sprouting every year and they quickly run at full capacity. The area under tea has been gradually increasing, standing at 236,200 hectares in 2018. Production by smallholders also increased by 10.7 per cent to 272,500 thousand tonnes in 2018.
“The sector is thriving on the back of innocent farmers. Once the math is demystified, more tea will be uprooted or farmers will get better pay for their crop,” Mr Ruto insists.
For Stephen Maina Koech, who has six acres of tea on his seven-acre piece of land at Ndaraweta, some 20 kilometres outside Bomet Town, the problems in the sector are exaggerated.
“If only the prices went a bit higher all will be well with tea,” he says, flanked by his wife, Edna. The couple has educated their six children with tea proceeds.
They also employ 10 workers. The discrepancy in prices between farmers from the east and those from the west of the Rift Valley is another controversy.
Critics complain that despite the fact that tea from Bomet and Kericho is some of the most sought after, farmers in the region are underpaid.
In 2018, for instance, farmers in the Rift Valley got an average bonus of Sh31 a kilo compared to their counterparts in Mt Kenya who earned about Sh68.
This year, Rukuriri factory in Embu paid out Sh39 while Tegat Tea Factory in Kericho will paid farmers Sh14. Kisii and Nyamira farmers are worse off with some earning as low as Sh10 a kilo.
KTDA says teas from different factories fetch varying prices at the markets because of consumer preference and varying costs of production.
A number of politicians, including ODM leader Raila Odinga, have called for an end to KTDA’s monopoly.
The agency controls 55 per cent of Kenya’s tea, leaving the bulk of the remainder to multinationals and private factories.
Some industry experts, however, advise farmers to expand their production if they are to cut back on costs and make profits. “When I had three acres, I couldn’t employ a manager to look after my interests. Now after expansion to 16 acres I can afford a manager and 15 workers,” says Mr Sammy Kirui, an engineer.