Journal Issue

Kenya’s New Breed of Tea Planter

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
June 1967
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Julian Grenfell

THE NAME “KENYA” is derived from a Bantu word meaning “ostrich.” To understand why this lovely country was named after this ungainly bird, you must gaze up at the grim and untidy peaks of Mount Kenya, rising 17,000 feet above the equator. The black rocks, capped year-round with snow, suggested to some early inhabitant the familiar color pattern of the ostrich’s plumage. So the mountain got its name from the ostrich, and the country got its name from the mountain.

Some of the melted snow that trickles down from Mount Kenya’s peaks through the thickly wooded lower slopes ends up at the bottom as the Mukengeria River. And since the beginning of 1964, a broad furrow has been channeling water from the river to irrigate a tea nursery at Kangaita, in the Kirinyaga District of Central Province. This nursery and one other, some 250 miles away at Kabianga in Kericho District, are among the largest tea nurseries in the world, and the seedlings reared there are the source of life of one of the most successful development programs under way anywhere in East Africa, the development of Kenya’s smallholder tea.

Tea Comes to Kenya

If the British had not taken up tea drinking as a national pastime, Kenya’s tea program would probably not exist. They are the world’s greatest tea drinkers; the 500 million pounds of tea that they consume each year constitute 30 per cent of the entire world consumption. In the days of Empire it was virtually standard procedure that where the British flag was planted, so was tea, if there was the remotest possibility of its growing there. Thus, at the beginning of this century, tea was planted for the first time in East Africa. It grew very well, but, until the mid-1920’s, it was not planted commercially, and then internationally agreed restrictions kept expansion to a modest scale for the next 15 years. By the end of World War II the restrictions had lapsed, and commercial companies began rapidly to expand their acreages. There was anxiety that the expected increases in the tea output of some major Asian producers would lead to a glut, but these increases never materialized. At the same time world consumption continued on a steadily rising curve. For Kenya, with a wealth of land suitable for planting, this was a most propitious trend, and little time was wasted in taking advantage of it.

Commercial Growing

Today there are 60,000 acres of Kenya land planted with tea, and there are plans to increase this to 100,000 acres by 1970. Space presents no immediate problem, for Kenya’s extensive virgin forest land has just the right sort of soil for growing tea—a medium loam with a good acid content and crammed with humus and plant food. So it seems that unless supplies are allowed to exceed demand, which is by no means impossible, there is little to prevent tea from becoming, possibly by the end of the 1970’s, Kenya’s prime export revenue earner. At present, coffee is still dominant, but its lead is becoming shaky. Sisal, for long the runner-up to coffee, is also in trouble. Sisal prices have been tumbling, and the rapid development in Europe and North America of polypropylene fiber from oil refinery waste gases spells out a most uncertain future. The outlook for tea, by contrast, is bright. Kenya’s tea, like its coffee, is of the highest quality, and as long as the demand is there, it should command high prices. In 1950 the export of tea (going mostly to Britain) earned the equivalent of $3.6 million for Kenya; a decade later it had risen to $12.3 million, and by 1965 it had reached $20.4 million and was still climbing.

Origins of Smallholding

Fifteen years ago, a profile of the Kenya tea industry could have been adequately compiled from the records of a handful of British tea companies. In the intervening years, however, the pattern of the industry has been changing. While the large commercial tea estates still produce the bulk of Kenya’s tea, the number of African smallholders engaged in growing tea has been increasing steadily. Six years ago, smallholders accounted for only 6 per cent of the acreage under tea. Today they account for 23 per cent and will soon account for more.

The development of smallholder tea cultivation is, of course, only one feature, though an outstandingly successful one, of the general development of African agriculture in Kenya since World War II. It has to be remembered that, before the War, agricultural development had been pretty well confined to those areas of Kenya, known as the “scheduled areas,” which were reserved for the European farmers. Farming on these 7.2 million acres of select land (much of which has since been resettled by Africans) was on a commercial scale and generally blessed with handsome profitability. But the Africans farming the 33 million acres of the “nonscheduled areas” were, with very few exceptions, outside the money economy. Whatever crops and livestock they reared, they reared for the single purpose of subsistence. The standard of living of these subsistence farmers could not be raised unless and until they were introduced to commercial farming.

Obstacles in the way of achieving such an objective were formidable. For one thing, Africans had for generations felt no incentive to produce anything in excess of what they and their families needed. They would not easily be persuaded to put in extra work for the purpose of marketing a surplus. There were backward agricultural practices to be eradicated and more efficient methods taught.

Land Reform

But perhaps the most serious and basic problem was the chaotic distribution of land under the traditional tribal systems of land tenure. It is true that, in some areas, there was de facto individual ownership of land, and in a number of places coffee and later tea cultivation by Africans was getting under way. Roger Swynnerton, the colonial administration’s Assistant Director of Agriculture who was the chief architect of African agricultural development in Kenya during the early 1950’s (his original plan forms the basis of almost everything done since), was convinced that until something positive was done about land reform, little, if anything, could be done about widespread agricultural improvement. Orderly development was very much an uphill task as long as the African farm land was so extensively subdivided among families and individuals, scattered all over the place, and with nothing meaningfully inscribed anywhere as to who owned what. In areas where population pressures were particularly severe, the ingeniously confusing traditional laws of tenure seemed to produce as much litigation over the land as cultivation on it. The obvious first step, then, was the systematic consolidation and registration of the holdings.

While reforms of this sort had for some time been urged and encouraged by local agricultural officers, and here and there they had been voluntarily initiated, it took the Mau Mau uprising, itself largely a product of the frustrations of the landless Kikuyu, to set the wheels of government action turning. Ironically enough, the uprising made the task easier in some important respects. By the time the Government launched its program of land reform in 1955, nearly all of those Kikuyu leaders who might have put every obstacle in the way of dismantling the ancient tribal system of land tenure were in detention centers. But that was not all. Military operations against the Mau Mau had made it necessary, for reasons of public safety, and not least for the safety of the Kikuyu farmers themselves, to gather the Kikuyu off their scattered individual plots and settle them, temporarily at least, in specially erected villages. This, of course, made it that much easier to sort out the nightmarish jigsaw of land holdings. Thus, while the campaign against the Mau Mau continued, the Government took advantage of what it quaintly but not altogether inaccurately described as the “favorable climate” to launch the much-needed program of reform.

Today, the land on which the smallholders are growing tea as owner-occupiers is land consolidated under Swynnerton’s plan. But the earliest experiments in smallholder tea cultivation predate the launching of the land reform program. At the beginning of the 1950’s, pilot projects were initiated in Nyeri, one of the three Kikuyu districts, and in Kericho, an area famed for its large commercial tea estates. By the mid-1950’s, the Department of Agriculture was convinced that African smallholders could not only grow tea, but tea of a definitely superior quality. To many people, even knowledgeable people, this came as a surprise; only a few had believed that local people could make a success of a venture so far removed from traditional farming. Success did not come without trouble. The Department did, in fact, at one point try to get a group of African farmers to grow tea on centralized blocs of pooled land. This was a failure, mostly because the farmers could summon up no enthusiasm for growing tea on land which they neither owned nor occupied.

Smallholdings Spread

As the work of land consolidation and registration progressed, tea planting in areas that were ecologically suitable became increasingly popular. By 1957 a government-financed tea factory had been opened at Ragati to process green leaf grown by the Nyeri smallholders, and in 1959 the Government asked the then Colonial Development Corporation (an organ of the U.K. Government) and various commercial companies to consider the over-all processing requirements for smallholder tea with a view to their investment in factories. A representative mission took a hard look at the situation and came to the conclusion that smallholder tea growing must be put on an organizational footing that would permit long-term integrated development planning and attract long-term finance. Thus, in the autumn of 1960, following further more detailed studies and recommendations, the Special Crops Development Authority was set up to take over responsibility for all smallholder tea development. In 1964 the Authority was reconstituted and renamed the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA), logically enough, since the SCDA, totally preoccupied with the rapid development of smallholder tea, had never actually got around to developing any other special crops.

In promoting and fostering the development of Kenya’s smallholder tea, the KTDA performs three principal functions. First, it establishes and finances the tea nurseries that supply the planting material to the smallholders, either for cash or on credit, and it supervises the eventual planting and cultivation. Second, it establishes buying centers for green leaf and provides staff and transport to collect, inspect, and carry the leaf to the factories. Third, it arranges for the processing of the smallholders’ leaf in existing factories or new ones, and participates in the financing of them. The Authority’s development program is based on two Plans, each Plan being built around an agreed planting program based on the assessed needs and demands for planting in each tea growing district. The First Plan provided for the planting of 11,100 acres of tea and the construction of six factories. Planting began in 1959 (under the old SCDA) and is now complete. All six factories are already in operation. The Second Plan provides for the planting of a further 14,400 acres and the construction of ten more factories. Planting under this Plan began in 1963 and will be completed in 1968/69.

These Plans have called for some hefty investment. For the field development under the First Plan, the Colonial Development Corporation (CDC; now the Commonwealth Development Corporation) agreed to lend £.900,000 and the Kenya Government £.20,000. Subsequently, Germany, through the agency of the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, lent £212,000. The financing of the six factories was carried out in each instance as a joint enterprise, two thirds of the cost being met by the CDC and the remaining third by one or more of the established commercial tea companies. The CDC is once again putting up money for the field sector of the Second Plan, and the KTDA is providing a good sum out of its own revenues. But the greater part, the equivalent of $2.8 million, is being lent by the International Development Association in the form of a 50-year interest-free loan to the Kenya Government for relending at commercial rates to the KTDA. These funds have been provided to the Authority for nursery development, including expenditure on seed (mostly from neighboring Tanzania), field supervision, and for the costs of inspection and collection of leaf, including salaries and wages and the purchase of vehicles and equipment. The factories, like those of the First Plan, are to be financed jointly by the CDC and the commercial companies, but this time the Kenya Government will also be involved to the extent of putting up one sixth of the required capital. So much for finance.

How Smallholding Works

On the slopes of Mount Kenya, where the tea bushes are spread out like the green baize tops of a thousand billiard tables, it all seems a long way from the flashing cameras and the scratching pen nibs, the handshakes and the homilies which mark the moment when the bankers and the officials breathe life into what will be a very human, very close-to-the-earth venture.

And yet the smallholders, on their small patches of land, are aware of being involved in something of importance, something of value. It was the Minister for Agriculture himself who laid the foundation stone of the Kangaita Factory; the Minister for Economic Planning and Development came up from Nairobi to open the completed factory and to tell them that the high quality of their tea and other cash crops was proof that they were now fully prepared to enter into the modern sector. The President himself, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, came to visit the nursery and the factory and to talk with the local people about the great opportunity they now had to better themselves and help their country.

Such high-level encouragement is effective. More and more farmers want to join the KTDA’s schemes, and the Government and the KTDA would be delighted to see them do so. But smallholder tea growing, like all development projects, has its problems, even if they are surmountable.

Take a typical smallholder in the Kirinyaga District. He has been established on his three and a half acres of consolidated land for a number of years now. He is fortunate in that his holding is situated within the “tea line,” that is to say, within the area demarcated as being suitable for tea growing, and outside of which it is not permitted. Five years ago he was a subsistence farmer, growing maize, beans, and potatoes. He still grows these, but on three acres only. Today he has just over half an acre of his land planted with tea, which this year will earn him about £25 net. Without having to employ outside labor, he and his family could manage a whole acre of tea which, when fully mature at six years, could earn him £90 per year. The Authority is sympathetic to such ambitions, but so many farmers have applied to join the ranks of the tea growers that there isn’t enough planting material at present to go around, and many must wait for the next planting program.

Up the red dusty road, at the Kangaita tea nursery, they are rearing the seedlings which will be sold as tea stumps to the smallholders. Over the best part of 400 acres, the southeastern slopes of Mount Kenya have been shorn of the dense forest growth with a geometrical precision and neatness suggestive of some giant barber’s artistry. But it was scarcely as simple as that. At one point torrential rains brought all progress on the nursery to a month-long standstill as flood waters washed over the newly prepared ground and marooned the heavy tractors in a glutinous sea of mud. And then out of the forest came the elephants; herds of them, trampling over the carefully constructed irrigation channel. Today an electric fence encircling the nursery discourages such incursions.

When the nursery is expanded to its full 400 acres, it will be twice the size of the biggest tea nursery anywhere in the world and will be producing enough stumps to satisfy the demand of all growers on the east side of the Rift Valley. Everybody knows that the number of smallholders is going to increase. They know it at the tea factory across the road from the nursery. When this was constructed as a joint enterprise by the CDC, the KTDA, the Government, and a commercial partner, George Williamson Africa Ltd., it was built with extra space to allow installation of more machinery whenever the increase in the volume of leaf calls for it. The factory manager is much impressed by the quality of the leaf that comes up to his factory. He does a first-rate processing job, but he needs good leaf to work with, and that is what he consistently gets from the 1,400 acres of smallholder tea in Kirinyaga District and another 450 acres in Embu District. Trial production began at the factory at the beginning of November 1965. By March of the following year the first export sales had been made in London, and by the end of April sales had arrived at the top of the market for African teas.

The smallholder down the road with his half acre of tea sends his leaf to the factory at Kan-gaita. He brings it on the appointed day to the local buying center, about a mile from his holding. The center, established and operated by the KTDA, is a small open-sided barn furnished with trestle tables and set just off the road. There, with a group of fellow growers, he awaits the KTDA truck which will set down at the center a leaf inspector, a buying clerk, and a pile of steel wire baskets. Having made its brief stop, the truck moves on to the next center on its chosen route, and will return in the afternoon to collect the inspector, the clerk, and the full baskets. At the center, the business gets under way, beginning with the inspection of the leaf. Two leaves and a bud snapped off the top of each tea shoot; that’s what the inspector is looking for, and that’s all he will buy. Our friend and his family have done their plucking with skill; there is little for the inspector to reject. The leaves are weighed and the clerk marks down the sale—at 40 Kenya cents a pound. No money changes hands, however. The KTDA office maintains an account for each individual grower. This smallholder, like an increasing number of his colleagues, has a bank account, and at the end of the month a check will be paid into it. The sum represents 40 cents for each pound he sold, less 10 cents a pound retained by the Authority for operating costs and a further 7 cents a pound deducted as monthly recovery of its material investment in the smallholding. This latter levy ceases when the assessment on that particular smallholding is paid off. But this is not the final payment to the smallholder for his tea. Based on the profits made by the factories, the Authority will make him a year-end “second payment” of maybe 15 or more cents a pound, thereby enabling him to make up most if not all of the deductions.

Meanwhile, the truck has returned for the leaf. Kenya tea collection roads are not ranked among the world’s marvels of engineering. They are adequate, that is all. The traffic on them is very light, and four-wheel drive pretty well dispenses with the need for surfacing, except where the drainage is known to be bad and where the gradient is unusually steep. But when the rain comes down really hard and the collection trucks have plowed a sticky furrow back to the factories, getting stuck with a load of tea is no joke. If leaf is not processed within about six hours of plucking, it deteriorates and is useless. This happened to 2,000 pounds of leaf in Kirinyaga District not so long ago.

With the help of some $3 million from the International Development Association, about 900 miles of tea collection and factory access roads are being constructed in the various tea-growing areas of Kenya, and some 15 small road maintenance units are being established and equipped. The collection roads are being built to very modest standards, but the factory access roads, where the traffic is much heavier, are all being gravel surfaced. Leaf collection will remain a rather risky business in the wet weather until a general upgrading of the standard of collection roads can be afforded and the building of new factories has cut down delivery distances.

Problems aside (though not ignored), what is going on around the slopes of Mount Kenya, and elsewhere where the African tea growers have taken root, generates an abundance of good that defies quantification. The assessment of success is often as much a matter of sensing a changed atmosphere, detecting a surging spirit, as it is of totting up a column of figures. Not that the smallholder tea growers are without some eminently measurable indicators of rising living standards. It’s just that the pride which they show in what they and the KTDA are achieving in the face of a fair share of problems makes one optimistic that the future will be fruitful after such promising beginnings.

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