GREEN LEAF

Poor tea quality hurting Kenya’s gains amid regional competition

Kenya has overtaken Sri Lanka to become the third-largest producer of tea (volumes) in the world after China and India

In Summary

•Low earnings have been blamed on mass production by farmers at the expense of quality

•While a kilo of Rwandan tea can fetch an upward of $6.30(Sh654.19 ) at the auction, Kenyan tea is currently attracting an average $2.05(Sh212.87 )

Farmers picking tea in Kangaita village
Farmers picking tea in Kangaita village
Image: FILE

The low quality of teas grown in the country is hurting the prices fetched by the commodity in the international markets, industry players have said.

Kenya’s black tea is among those with the lowest asking price at the Mombasa Weekly Auction, the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA) has said, compared to Rwandan tea, which has among the highest markups.

This has been blamed on among others, mass production by Kenyan farmers at the expense of quality.

“We are more focused on volumes than quality. Rwandans are very particular on quality. We need to focus more on quality than volumes,” EATTA chairman Gideon Mugo said.

While a kilo of Rwandan tea can fetch an upward of $6.30(Sh654.19 ) at the auction, Kenyan tea is currently attracting an average $2.05(Sh212.87 ).

It had dropped to $1.76(Sh182.76 ) in July, the lowest in the last five years, compared to US$2.26(Sh234.68 ) per kilo in a similar period last year.

“In the 90s and early 2000s factories used to emphasize on quality but now it seems to be all about volumes. We are losing on quality aspects which have seen tea prices remain low,” Mugo added.

In last Tuesday’s auction, the top prices went to Rwandan tea that averaged Sh321.02 across nine grades offered for sale. Kenya’s teas attracted an average price of Sh235.83 slightly above Burindi’s Sh234.79, latest market data shows.

Kenya has overtaken Sri Lanka to become the third-largest producer of tea (volumes) in the world after China and India.

Tea production was 490 million in 2018, 439 million kilos in 2017 and reached an all-time high of 473 million kilos in 2016. The production was 399 million kilos in 2015, 445 million kilos in 2014 and 432 million kilos in 2013.

Smallholder subsector constitutes 56 per cent of the total production while the plantation subsector constitutes 44 per cent, according to Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).

“The narrative of focusing on volumes should change if we are to remain competitive globally and attract good returns for our teas,” said John Bett, KTDA general manager-sales and marketing.

The low quality comes amid high cost of production that is hurting returns. According to Kenya Tea Growers Association CEO Apollo Kiarii, it costs a farmer in Kenya an average $2(about Sh207 ) to produce a kilo of green tea, which is “higher compared to other tea growing regions.”

“This includes farm inputs, energy costs and transport. We need to mitigate on the cost of production,” Kiarii said.

At the Mombasa auction, Kenyan tea mainly competes with those from Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Ethiopia, DR Congo, Malawi, Madagascar and Mozambique also actively engage in buying, broking and warehousing of tea through Mombasa.

“The top export markets for Kenyan tea are Egypt, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Yemen and Kazakhstan,” EATTA managing director Edward Mudibo said.