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Potential of purple tea yet to be tapped

Researchers at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra) have tipped national and county governments to develop policies to exploit the huge potential of purple tea.

They said, while still in its infancy, Kenya’s emerging purple tea production has the potential to create a new market which can generate an estimated Sh6 billion in the next three to five years.

Kippra researcher, John Nyangena, regretted that the country is yet to benefit from the exciting new product capable of transforming the country’s tea industry and boost the sector’s competitiveness and increase earnings to farmers and the country at large.

“Purple tea has higher yields, is more adaptive to drought and can fetch up to 10 times more than processed green tea at the international market,” he said. To harness the full benefits of purple tea, Nyangena said more effort is needed to reduce the cost of setting up specialised factories, develop the necessary technical capacity for processing and address market barriers.

He said production of a unique speciality product such as purple tea offers great promise in transforming the local tea industry as well as boosting the sub-sectors competitiveness.

Purple tea derives its name from its distinctive, purple-reddish leaves associated with high levels of anthocyanins, the same antioxidants that give colour to foods such as blueberries, cranberries, grapes, and even red cabbage or eggplants. The clone thrives on highlands 1500-2500 meters above sea level on rich volcanic soils.

Besides the economic benefit, he added, Kenya stands to reap from the health benefits of purple tea whose introduction in 2011 by Tea Research Institute provided an opportunity for diversification and increased competitiveness of Kenyan tea.

Research has shown that its rich flavour in oxidized form enables purple tea to have multiple health benefits. For example, drinking purple tea helps in anti-obesity through the inhibition of lipase, the enzyme that breaks down fats in the body, and providing anti-aging benefits to the skin.

In addition, it has low caffeine content, is highly refreshing and has a unique thirst-quenching flavour, and has no additives or no known allergens. Currently, Kenya exports approximately 60 tonnes of purple tea to Japan, China, North America and Europe. While the prices of ordinary tea have been falling in the international market, prices for purple tea have been rising.

At the local level, a kilo of purple tea can fetch up to Sh2,600 which is 10 times more than processed green tea which fetches Sh200 per kilo.

A well-established bush can yield up to 2.5 kgs of leaves in a year as opposed to 1.5 kgs for green tea. In addition, the tea withstands adverse weather conditions like drought and frost as well as diseases and pests. A recent study by Kippra identified capacity gaps in the tea value chain in general and specifically for speciality teas.

Market research

The gaps include insufficient numbers of tea specialists, statisticians, market researchers and policy experts. The gaps exist in institutions mandated to promote tea production, processing, marketing and research, among others.

At the national level, the country does not have an operational tea policy while at the counties there is a lack of a clear legal and regulatory framework to effectively support the tea sector.

The survey also points out that the current production of purple tea in the country is still low with a small proportion of farmers engaged in its production. Majority of farmers are reluctant to adopt purple tea mainly due to expected income loss if they were to replace the existing tea bushes.

Technical know-how

Although the time it takes before the plant is fully established is much less than in the case of black tea (three compared to five years), the loss of income during the waiting period discourages farmers, since they have no other sources of income to support their livelihoods.  A Kippra research paper dubbed “Promoting Purple Tea to Enhance Diversification in Kenya’s Tea industry”, purple tea requires specialised plant, equipment and technical know-how.

Most of the factory capacities in the country, the paper by Nyangena, Hannah Wang’ombe and Augustus Muluvi, says consist of wilting, bruising, oxidation, rolling and drying processes needed to produce black CTC tea.

“However, the processing of purple tea requires additional processes, specifically for fixation, yellowing and curing which requires dedicated lines for production,” they add.

Currently, of all the 66 Kenya Tea Development Agency factories, only Kangaita Tea Factory in Kirinyaga county has a production line that can process purple tea.

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