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  • Writer's picturejohn snell

The Clash foresaw the plight of Kenyan tea harvesting back in 1982

"Should I stay or should I go?" could have been written to describe the quandary of the Kenyan tea producer and the decision to move from hand plucking to mechanical harvesting!

A contrived start? well yes, maybe, but a real quandary nevertheless.

The economics of tea production are simple, you plant a tree and it's around for approximately 40 years bearing leaf; your job is to get as much from this asset during it's useful existence. But there in lies the rub the old adage of less is more could be more fruitful than the current belief that more is more or, more correctly, more from less is!

As land, labour and farm inputs increase and markets stall, there is every need for the organized sector to look for ways to reduce the bottom line; it's far more objective than trying to consider ways for topline growth, when sitting at Origin rather than a major consuming country! While not peculiar to, it is the case with Kenya and we see it played out daily in the papers, with the latest issues being mechanized harvesting and it's impact on employment.

You cannot blame either side but you can challenge the status quo and take an holistic look at the trade offs, for one side or another.

In this instance, the forecast is emphatic; Mombasa auction results from 2016 to today show the inverse relationship between increased offerings and price.

I know, not surprising! What is, is the lack of a reaction to this, with firms and organizations set on making the economics right by manufacturing more from the same assets.

The folly is clear, unfortunately, while a Ha of land can be made to produce more through replanting with high yielding clones, infilling or otherwise increasing densities, fertilization etc, it cannot be made to do so and produce a better quality of tea (I am sure someone can find me an example to prove this statement wrong but go with me on this, " it ain't natural!"). The upshot of this, simplistic, statement is that by increasing yield/Ha we are producing more but plainer tea, just at a time when quality is proving to be where the money is. One only has to look at the spread between best and plainest quality within a single Mombasa auction (Feb9 2021).

So what is the solution "clever clogs"? I hear you ask. Well, pointing out the obvious does not mean I have a solution but I do know what doing the same thing and expecting to come out with a different result makes me as it just is not logical!

The problem is complex, multinationals have increasing costs and decreasing returns so strive to manage costs, smallholders have higher living expenses and diminishing returns and strive to optimize their share of margin. The net result is a series of tactics, be they mechanizing, renewable energy investments, political wrangling and optimizing yields.

Necessity is delivering a tactical ground level approach, rather than an aerial strategic forward focused approach. This is not a criticism but a commentary.

In some corners of Africa, indeed in Kenya too, producers are making extraordinary teas, pioneering orthodox, green, white and other value additions and well done them! But these individual efforts will not change the overall fortunes of Kenya which, rooted in CTC and with ROIs in mind, will remain firmly in this camp for a while yet so, what can be done?

The quality of KTDA teas 30 years ago was amazing and many of the private estates (Not unique to Kenya by the way, I remember BB Tanzanian estates delivering wonderful teas!!) too but this has, despite the odd bright spot, dropped off gradually, despite the bushes being the same and clear evidence, from other nations selling in Mombasa, that quality pays.

A brave strategy would be to work towards a Kenya producing 50MMkgs less, through less intensive, lower carbon tea, which would, with care, increase quality and ignite interest in Global markets as supply and demand would be brought back to a sustainable balance.

Of course it will not happen (at scale anyway), the Clash epitomized the indecision of an industry caught between today and tomorrow.. but I can dream!!

A footnote: I have and continue to be a lover of Kenya and Kenyan tea, any commentary here is made with a view to ignite a conversation and maybe elicit a rude response or two but, ultimately, to encourage alternate views in order that we can enjoy this amazing harvest and support farmers and producers, for decades to come.

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