The story of Kenya’s bitter tea made chilling reading in the past few days.
It’s a story of a sector deeply captured by wheeler-dealers and cartels that skim off the sweat of farmers; an industry ensnared in politics and a business managed by an agency with wide and unfettered powers and one that has minimal regard for tea producers.
Despite the harrowing experience of the tea farmers, the government has hardly been bothered about the industry being steeped in a crisis.
Little intervention has been forthcoming from the government and authorities charged with the responsibility of managing the sector.
At the centre is the Kenya Tea Development Agency that manages the sector and which, from the available reports, has outlived its welcome.
The KTDA is a master with an array of responsibilities, ranging from managing tea cultivation to weighing and collecting green leaf, transportation to manufacturing and marketing of processed tea.
From all these processes, the agency is expected to generate good money and pay farmers generous cash. This is not forthcoming. And here is the thrust of the matter.
This financial year, the KTDA announced a drastic cut of bonuses for farmers. And the reason is that the earnings from tea exports and sales plummeted to Sh69.8 billion from Sh85.7 billion last year, which fact the agency attributes to political and economic crises in the traditional tea markets of Sudan, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan.
But this masks a far deeper problem. The entire sector is badly managed, and given the influence of brokers, farmers are convinced that some underhand practices are at play.
It is not far-fetched not to rule out price fixing that ultimately diminishes farmers’ returns.
To be sure, the court, through a public spirited suit, has determined that the prices be investigated by independent experts. But that is not the subject for this discussion.
The way tea and other cash crops, such as coffee and sugarcane, have been managed has created the equivalent of South American sharecroppers, where entities meant to manage the industries turn into de facto owners of the land, literally dethroning real owners and forcing them to existence at the periphery.
When, for example, we consider the ratios of earnings that accrue to the KTDA and farmers, the metaphor takes an eerie dimension.
Given the loud silence from the Agriculture ministry, we urge political leaders and lobbies to take up this matter and push for proper compensation for farmers and, in the long run, restructuring of the KTDA and revitalisation of the sector to weed out the cartels and create systems that favour tea growers.