As Nandi Governor Stephen Sang and British Deputy High Commissioner Susie Kitchens sat down recently for a cup of tea, a storm was brewing. And it will soon be felt in everyone's cup if the issue of the leases in the Rift Valley is not handled with care.
At the centre of the controversy are the leases for thousands of acres in the tea zones that have expired or are about to.
The matter is now clouded in political talk. Tea companies are jittery as the clamour by locals not to renew the leases get louder.
The tension fuelled by the election campaign pledges made by politicians, some bordering on threats to evict tea estate owners, is quite evident.
To demonstrate how serious it is, in the past couple of months, amid meetings between Kenyan and British Government officials, there appears to be no consensus on the ground.
Meeting after meeting appears to have ended in a stalemate with youthful Governor Sang, who is the current face of the clamour, proclaiming that the leases will not be renewed and that the land should be reverted to the locals.
The second issue at hand is the lack of clarity on who between the county and the national government has the mandate on the management, extension and renewal of the leases.
The national government might have the upper hand but the locals border the tea estates.
Then there is the issue of who — between the National Land Commission, Ministry of Lands and the county land boards — is responsible for renewing leases or even transferring property.
To arrive at an amicable proposal on the way forward however, it is important to look at both sides of the coin.
When the British colonised Kenya, they forcibly displaced locals from the “White Highlands” and took possession of their land.
A lot of time and investment has since been put in the lands, now vast fields of tea, to the benefit of the locals, workers from other parts of the country, tea consumers and the estate owners.
Kenya, the third-largest tea producer globally after India and China, is the largest exporter in terms of volume.
Last year, tea accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s marketed agricultural production and contributed 25 percent of total export earnings.
Multinationals in Kenya account for 40 percent of the tea available for export at the Mombasa auction.
They employ more than 100,000 people, who are involved in different operations — from planting to tending and picking to packing the final product for export or sale in the local market.
It is important that, given the economic importance of tea plantations to the country, the matter of land tenure, including renewal of leases, be handled in the most amicable of ways.
Experiences elsewhere have shown that forced repossession of land as is being advocated, or reckless talk about the possibility of it, has lead to dire economic consequences as investors hold back on investments, flee or stay away.
When then-President Robert Mugabe ordered land seizures from White farmers in Zimbabwe, the country’s economy collapsed. A similar debate is going on in South Africa and pointers show a similar trend.
Land is a critical factor of production — but there is also capital, labour and management for an investment to make sense.
Leaders should look for other ways to sort out whatever challenges there may be in their jurisdictions without resorting to the dangerous and reckless talk of land repossession.
Let us learn from the mistakes of others and take care not to repeat them.
Mr Aron is a researcher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected]