Wangari Njuguna @PeopleDailyKe
For many years, tea farmers in the country have been crying foul over declining and meagre returns from the crop, a major foreign exchange earner.
While some famers have opted to uproot tea bushes from their farms to venture into real estate, cattle rearing or horticulture, many are still clinging to the crop hoping that returns will improve.
However, Karanja Kinyanjui of Murang’a county has opted for a different variety of tea, which has been rewarding him handsomely. The businessman and a retired civil servant, decided to venture into purple tea farming eight years ago after his friend who was a manager in a tea factory in Gatanga tipped him about it.
Though he had grown ordinary tea for years, Karanja did not want to do away with it. Instead, he bought another piece of land to plant the purple tea variety. He started with one acre but over time he has increased it to 20 acres. In contrast, he has more than 80 acres ordinary tea crop.
Karanja says he was among the first farmers to plant the purple variety, which was approved by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011. At first, he used to sell his purple tea together with the ordinary tea to Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) factories but he realised he was losing a lot of money as market prices where much higher than what KTDA was paying for the variety.
So Karanja decided to buy a tea-processing machine, which he installed at his home for cutting and chopping and grading the purple tea for sale. His main clients are the Chinese citizens living in the country but he also exports the produce.
Last year, Karanja decided to take his production a notch higher by setting up a factory for tea processing, the major output being purple tea. Other special teas are black tea, green tea and orange tea.
He obtained a tea manufacturing, packing and exporting licences from the Tea Directorate at the national AFA (Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority), though he faced resistance from the KTDA. AFA is the successor of former regulatory institutions in the sector that were merged into directorates under the authority, with the commencement of Crops Act, 2013 on August 1, 2014.
The Tea Directorate is mandated to license tea manufacturing factories; to register buyers, brokers, packers, management agents and any other person dealing in tea; and promote Kenya tea in both the local and the international markets.
Karanja says purple tea growing is a venture he cannot regret to have joined; pointing out the returns from the special tea is high compared to the ordinary tea. “For the ordinary tea when processed, a kilo goes for Sh1, 000 at the international market but purple tea fetches Sh2, 000 for the same amount,” he said.
Favourable climatic conditions for growing purple tea are similar to those of the ordinary tea. Karanja produces about 4,000kg of purple tea per month from his 20 acres, which he processes at his factory. “The purple tea does not undergo a long chain of processing and this helps in cutting down the costs of production,” says Karanja.
However, many people are yet to embrace the crop, which is relatively new, but several farmers from his area have planted and they are selling to KTDA just like the ordinary tea. Although his factory has the capacity to process 5,000kg of tea in a day, he only processes his own tea and from four other farmers.
“I have the capacity to process all the tea produced by the farmers in this area but I opt not to because I am yet to secure a market for it. I have been visiting international trade fairs to look for market for the produce and although the product is relatively new, people are taking it well. I am hoping the huge market will soon open up,” he said.
Unlike the ordinary tea, the purple tea is said to have a special element called anthocyanin, which is a strong anti-oxidant. The beverage has various health benefits such as fighting chronic diseases and improving skin conditions.
Being a pioneer in the purple tea farming, Karanja says the future of the crop is promising if it is well managed. Unfortunately, purple tea has a bitter taste and only those who know its medicinal value go for it.
Karanja says the Tea Directorate should put efforts to popularise this special tea for the farmers to adopt it and in turn earn more. “Kenya is the only country growing the purple tea for now and this is an opportunity that farmers cannot afford to miss, ” he says.
The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation says prices of black tea may drop by as much as 40 per cent by 2023 if producers around the world increase supply by about five per cent. Grower nations like Kenya now have to promote domestic demand and diversify into specialty teas to protect their earnings.
According to a World Bank report, Kenya is by far Africa’s largest tea producer, and the third largest globally. About 40 per cent of Kenyan tea is grown on large plantations employing some 100,000 workers; the rest comes from small-scale farmers, some 560,000 of them.