Future of Kenya's tea sector promising, but comes with challenges

Kenya Tea Growers Association CEO Apollo Kiarii spoke to the Star.

In Summary

•The assertion of historical land injustices is a complex and sensitive issue in Kenya's agricultural sector, including the tea industry. 

•KTGA has been actively engaged in climate change mitigation efforts in collaboration with both levels of government and local communities. Our initiatives include:

Kenya Tea Growers Association CEO Apollo Kiarii/HANDOUT
Kenya Tea Growers Association CEO Apollo Kiarii/HANDOUT

The Kenyan tea industry is characterised by a combination of smallholder farmers and large-scale tea producers, with the latter making a substantial impact.

Large-scale tea producers in Kenya, often organised into plantations or estates, manage extensive tea fields that span thousands of acres.

These estates benefit from economies of scale, advanced agricultural practices, and modern processing facilities.

In addition to their contribution to Kenya's export revenues, these large-scale producers provide employment opportunities for thousands of Kenyan workers, supporting livelihoods and fostering economic development in tea-growing regions.

The continued growth and success of Kenya's large-scale tea producers underscore their significance in the global tea industry.

The Star Spoke to Apollo Kiarii, CEO Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) on the country's tea industry and global market.

What is the current performance of Kenyan tea in the global market, and what should be done to ensure the country retains its competitive edge?

Kenyan tea has traditionally enjoyed a strong global reputation for its quality and flavor. However, recent market dynamics have presented challenges, including price fluctuations due to surplus tea supply worldwide. To maintain and enhance our competitive edge, we are focused on several key strategies:

  1. Quality Assurance: We are committed to upholding stringent quality control measures and adhering to international standards to ensure that Kenyan tea continues to meet and exceed the expectations of global consumers.
  2. Market Diversification: We recognize the importance of exploring new markets and opportunities to reduce our dependence on traditional markets that may be vulnerable to economic crises or geopolitical issues.
  3. Cost Management: Addressing the rising production costs, particularly labor costs, is a priority. We are actively engaged in sustainable wage negotiations and are exploring mechanization where appropriate to improve cost efficiency.
  4. Sustainability: We place a strong emphasis on sustainable tea production and environmental conservation, aligning with the preferences of environmentally conscious consumers.
  5. Certification: We are actively engaging with stakeholders to find a balanced approach to addressing the challenges posed by certification costs, ensuring that compliance is economically sustainable.

So far, what has been the impact of climate change on the country’s tea production, and how does it compare with other regions?

Climate change has indeed had a noticeable impact on tea production in Kenya. While our tea-growing regions receive adequate rainfall, we have observed an increase in the frequency of drought periods, leading to fluctuations in tea yields and earnings.

In comparison to other tea-producing regions globally, Kenya shares similar challenges related to climate change. However, what sets us apart is our proactive approach to addressing these challenges. We have implemented extensive climate and environmental sustainability programs within our estates, focusing on mitigating the effects of climate change. These programs secure indigenous forests, manage commercial forests sustainably, and promote afforestation, making us a leader in environmentally responsible tea production.

What steps has KTGA, in partnership with the government (both levels) and the respective communities, taken in the fight against the escalating effects of climate change?

KTGA has been actively engaged in climate change mitigation efforts in collaboration with both levels of government and local communities. Our initiatives include:

Sustainable Forestry Management: We have taken measures to secure indigenous forests and riparian areas within our estates from interference, and we actively adopt sustainable forestry management practices.

Community Engagement: We work closely with neighboring communities, sharing tree nurseries and seedlings to promote afforestation and environmental conservation in the region.

Environmental Sustainability Programs: We have implemented comprehensive environmental sustainability programs within our estates to reduce our carbon footprint and enhance environmental conservation.

Our goal is not only to mitigate the effects of climate change but also to make positive contributions to the environment and the well-being of local communities.

Owners of large-scale tea plantations have often been accused of perpetuating historical land injustices in Kenya. How true is this assertion, and how is it being addressed by KTGA as a key stakeholder?

The assertion of historical land injustices is a complex and sensitive issue in Kenya's agricultural sector, including the tea industry. While it is true that historical land issues exist, it is crucial to note that the ownership and tenure of land held by Large Scale Tea Producers (LSTPs) are lawful and adhere to national land tenure regulations.

KTGA recognises the need for a fair and transparent resolution of land matters. We have actively engaged with relevant government authorities and stakeholders to ensure that land issues are addressed legally and justly, while upholding the rule of law.

It's important to emphasize that inflammatory pronouncements can negatively impact the tea sector's image and investor confidence, and we condemn any such statements. We are committed to fostering a cooperative and constructive approach to addressing land-related concerns.

To what extent is KTGA focused on supporting communities on whose ancestral land the tea estates are located, and is that an effective mitigation measure?

KTGA places a significant emphasis on supporting the communities where our tea estates are located. We understand the importance of a mutually beneficial relationship with these communities, and our initiatives include:

  1. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): We invest substantially in CSR activities that support education, healthcare, water facilities, and public infrastructure in these communities.
  2. Environmental Stewardship: Our commitment to environmental sustainability directly benefits the local ecosystem and water sources, contributing positively to the well-being of these communities.
  3. Employment: We provide stable employment opportunities for thousands of residents, making a substantial contribution to their livelihoods.

Our engagement with these communities is not only an effective mitigation measure but also a demonstration of our commitment to being responsible corporate citizens. This approach fosters goodwill, cooperation, and sustainable development for both our industry and the communities we serve.

How engaged is KTGA in the socio-economic empowerment of the communities within which they operate? 

KTGA is highly committed to the socio-economic empowerment of the communities within which we operate. Our initiatives extend beyond tea production and encompass various aspects of community development, including:

  1. Job Creation: We play a vital role in employment generation, offering thousands of local resident’s stable job opportunities.
  2. Education and Healthcare Support: We invest in education and healthcare infrastructure, benefiting local schools and health centers.
  3. Community Development Projects: We undertake diverse projects to improve water access, road infrastructure, and public utilities, enhancing the quality of life in these communities.

Our dedication to socio-economic empowerment is not just a responsibility but a core principle of our operations. We strive to make a meaningful and lasting impact on the well-being and prosperity of the communities we serve.

Has KTGA and the counties in which you operate arrived at mutually accepted land rates that your members should pay?

Yes, KTGA has actively engaged in discussions with the counties in which we operate regarding land rates. In January 2023, we initiated discussions with several counties, including Kericho, Nandi, Bomet, and Nyamira, to establish a mutually acceptable framework for land rates levied on tea producers.

In the absence of a legal framework for rate reviews, these discussions were initiated in good faith and with the aim of fostering positive relations. As a result, we successfully agreed upon a seven-year progressive rates payment regime for the years 2023-2032. This cooperative approach is designed to ensure that land rates for our members are fair and sustainable, while also contributing to county government revenues.

Finally, and in your opinion, what is the future of Kenya’s tea industry as a cash crop?

The future of Kenya's tea industry as a cash crop remains promising, but it also comes with challenges that must be addressed collaboratively. Tea has been a vital part of our economy, providing employment, foreign exchange, and supporting local communities. To ensure a bright future for the industry, we must continue to focus on quality, sustainability, cost management, and market diversification.

As a key stakeholder, KTGA is committed to working with our partners, including the government, communities, and other industry players, to overcome challenges, adapt to changing market dynamics, and secure the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of Kenya's tea industry on the global stage. With dedication and strategic planning, we believe that tea will continue to be a valuable cash crop for Kenya.

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