OUTDOING KTDA

How private tea factories are winning on prices and quality

Partial automation and strict controls from the farmer to the factory are proving to be game changers

In Summary

• The Kenya Tea Development Authority has long dominated the sector

• Private tea factories are giving it a run for its money with variety and high standards

Workers sort the fresh green leaves just delivered at the factory before being moved to the withering section, where moisture in the tea is reduced. Looking on is the general manager Julius Likwop
Workers sort the fresh green leaves just delivered at the factory before being moved to the withering section, where moisture in the tea is reduced. Looking on is the general manager Julius Likwop
Image: Felix Kipkemoi

Competition for the quality tea at the Mombasa tea auction has been stiff for tea factories the past three months.

Oversupply of green tea leaves due to the prolonged rains has led to high quantities of made tea (that which has been processed at the factory and is ready for the market).

It has risen from 9 million to 13 million kilos on a weekly basis during this period.

 

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the world has affected sales due to travel restrictions imposed by the government on international travels.

This has now dealt a huge blow to the Kenya Tea Development Authority, which has long dominated the sector.

KTDA-managed factories have over the years engaged mainly on black CTC tea. But private tea factories have taken the market by storm with orthodox teas, such as purple, white and green.

The quality of green leaves delivered to factories has been the main variant on pricing of teas produced by various factories.

Other factors influencing price are crop husbandry, leaf collection from buying centers, factory operations and processing standards. Private factories are urging small-scale tea farmers to pluck two leaves and a bud for quality purposes.

In Bomet county, Siomo tea factory in Konoin strives to ensure proper management of the crop right from the farm to the factory.

Started three years ago, Siomo is now leading the pack of private tea factories in the region, with its made tea selling highly compared to other factories.

 
 

SECRET TO QUALITY TEA

Siomo tea offers a distinct taste due to the measures it has put in place to ensure proper handling of the produce.

 
 
 

While it also deals mostly in black tea, the factory also processes orthodox teas on order.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic that has hurt the tea industry, the privately managed factory has been able to sell its tea at the auction at a relatively good price.

In the last quarter, Siomo sold at an average of Sh180 per kilogramme, compared to Sh160 of other factories.

Though lower than the normal Sh300, the price is something the factory prides itself in since it is ahead of the competition.

Siomo chairman John Koech during an interview at the factory
Siomo chairman John Koech during an interview at the factory
Image: Felix Kipkemoi

Siomo general manager Julius Likwop says if farmers do not pluck two leaves and a bud, the quality of tea supplied to factories is compromised.

Thanks to semi-automation, Siomo operates with only 150 staff, half that of other factories.

Likwop says they ensure the green leaves plucked and delivered by farmers conform to the required standards right from the farm to the factory.

In an interview, Likwop said through extension officers who educate growers on best practices, they have managed to ensure the 13,000 farmers supplying tea to their factory deliver quality green tea leaves.

They also see to it that the farmers use the required bags and that whoever violates the regulation has his produce rejected.

“We have asked our farmers to use some particular bags while delivering their green leaves, which helps in ensuring the green leaves remain fresh. They are adhering to that rule and this has made it possible for us to produce the best teas,” Likwop said.

Transport of green leaves is prompt to avoid it wilting up at the buying centre, losing moisture. Drivers and clerks who collect them are under strict guidelines to ensure they are still fresh.

Factory chairman major John Koech says middlemen and brokers are prohibited within their catchment area and around the factory, in line with the new government regulations on tea.

This has made it possible to have farmers supply unadulterated produce at the collection centres.

Siomo general manager Julius Likwop at the tea tasting section
Siomo general manager Julius Likwop at the tea tasting section
Image: Felix Kipkemoi

LOWER OPERATING COSTS

The factory's use of machines, Koech said, has greatly helped in cutting down on operation costs. 

"Without these modern machines, which most of the factories do not have, we would be employing over 300 personnel in all the sections," he says.

He says the move to have limited staff in handling green leaves during processing has gone a long way in ensuring a high level of hygiene so that quality is not compromised. 

With most new tea factories competing for maximum quantity of green leaves from farmers regardless, Siomo strives to ensure farmers supply tea that meets the set standards.

"The secret to high prices is quality tea, and to achieve this, we have to collect green leaves early in the morning; we are not much after quantity," Koech said. 

Packed tea, commonly referred to as PF1, ready for dispatch at the factory.
Packed tea, commonly referred to as PF1, ready for dispatch at the factory.
Image: Felix Kipkemoi