When you can get good orthodox tea from Kenya, it tends to be exceptional. I have enjoyed numerous cups of Tinderet and Millima, and the odd cup of Kamba purple tea over the years and always asked myself why I do not drink more of this. As it turns out, one of the most popular teas I sell is Irish Breakfast, which is composed of nearly 25% Eastern Rift Valley tea.
Kenya’s teas are so incredibly good thanks to two variables – the country’s geographic location and the uniqueness of the soil. Kenya is centered smack dab on the equator, so tea picking is a year-round activity, about every 7-14 days, depending on the elevation of the garden. A major reason why teas from Kenya are so good is the volcanic red soil, which rims both sides of the Eastern Rift Valley and appears in many other highland regions throughout the country. These low PH soils are what the Camellia sinensis bush thrives in, and with more then 50 cultivars created within the country, they’ve tailored these clones to each tea region.
Unbeknownst to a lot of us, Kenya is the third largest tea producer in the world, but rarely appears on loose-leaf tea lovers’ radars. The simple explanation for this is that almost all the tea picked in Kenya gets CTC processed. And as we know, most CTC tea ends up in teabags, which many tea lovers do not buy.
This is a shame because Kenya has the potential to create artisan hand-crafted teas that rival those that come out of China, Darjeeling, and Taiwan. The reason we see so little orthodox, small-scale farmer, loose-leaf varieties from Kenya is because most farmers do nothing more then pick the leaves and sell them, with no value-added processing at all. The Kenya Tea Development Association (KTDA) represents over 500,000 small-scale tea farmers, who make up 60% of the Kenyan tea industry. They look after about 70 CTC processing factories dotted throughout the tea-growing regions. The other 40% is held by multinationals like Unilever and Lipton (which do little to improve the livelihoods of the small-scale farmer).
What this system perpetuates is a guarantee that the small-scale farmer with a hectare or two of tea plants will always get nothing more than whatever the going rate is for unprocessed, wet tea leaves, which is a fraction of what made tea will fetch.
So why my sudden interest in Kenyan Tea? A local company named WOW Ventures approached me a few months ago about getting involved with them to help African tea farmers learn the skills necessary to start producing hand-crafted artisan teas. I personally do not know how to hand craft tea, but I do know what it should taste like coming out the other side, and this is where I can be of assistance to the WOW group.
The plan is to import the expertise from China or Taiwan to teach these small-scale holders how to take the wet leaf and turn it into something fantastic. As I said, Kenya has all the attributes to be producing some of the best hand-crafted teas in the world, but the lack of initiative, leadership, and tea-processing skills means that farmers live just above the poverty line selling off their wet leaves into an unfair system that provides little more than a rudimentary lifestyle. The KTDA and factory owners reap the biggest benefit from the sweat and toil of these small-scale holders.
In January, I will travel to Kenya with WOW Ventures to help assess the quality of the tea bushes at the present moment and put into place timelines as to when we can start to see hand-crafted teas appear in the North American market.
In doing this, we are currently searching for an individual or individuals from China or Taiwan with hand tea-processing expertise. One of the best seasons for tea picking in Kenya is February, so we would ideally like to have a person or persons ready to join us in Kenya at that time to begin the process of transferring tea-making expertise to a select group of Kenyan tea farmers. If you have a connection to anyone who might fit the bill, I would love to hear from you.
This is an exciting project, as its impact on the livelihoods of small-scale tea growers cannot be understated. In due time, I think we all will be taking a second look at Kenyan tea – it is certainly something exciting to look forward to in the not-too-distant future!
JusTea – A Vancouver-based social justice partnership with Kenyan tea farmers
The tea venture about which I am speaking is JusTea, a non-profit partnership with small-scale Kenyan tea farmers to produce premium whole-leaf tea and bring social justice to their industry. More than simply emerging as another social business, JusTea aims to start a social justice movement. The project encourages tea lovers to rethink tea, and to connect with its culture and the people growing it. JusTea’s goal in the fall of 2013 is to introduce orthodox handcrafting techniques to Kenyan tea farmers so they can process their own tea.
Kenya is the world’s largest producer and exporter of black tea; production is around 300 million kilograms each year. The lion’s share of tea is grown by over 500,000 small-scale tea farms in the country, and then processed in large industrial factories. Consequently, the farmers only receive about 1% of what the consumer pays. This leaves the farmers in poverty and without a voice to change their circumstances. We are partnering with them to remove the middleman and give them the power to make beautifully handcrafted tea.
Grayson Bain, the founder of Rocky Mountain Bikes, started JusTea in 2012, after forming friendships with Kenyan tea farmers. The team is volunteer-based, and currently consists of nine members based in Vancouver, with international collaboration from key people in Kenya. Grayson explains, “My vision for starting JusTea was to practically connect the rich 5% of the world with the 95% that love, build, and hope – but have so little real connection to us in the 5%. Furthermore, it was to enrich millions of tea drinkers by bettering the lives of thousands of African tea farmers.”
This article has been updated from the original 2013 publication.
Hi Brendan – as you know I too am very enthusiastic about orthodox tea from Kenya. Teacraft installed a rolling table line at KTDA Kangaita Tea Factory in 2003 and trained their staff in orthodox black and green tea production. I would however have reservations about importing Chinese or Taiwanese tea making skills as the paradigm for Africa. The tea clones (Assam hybrids), the conditions, and the people of Kenya would far better respond to the input of Indian or Sri Lankan skills I suspect.
Nigel at Teacraft
Must be a communal wave length being transmitted through the tea community. Our African tea offerings have been limited, highlighted by the great project of Ajiri Tea, and we’ve been working on expanding them over the past couple of months. Just this week we’ve brought in 7 teas from Africa including from Tinderet/Lesla and the Luponde Estate in Tanzania. Good things to come I’m sure, good luck with the partnership Brendan.
I was hoping you would weigh in on this. It would probably make more sense to import the talent from a closer country that grows a similar cultivar I would suspect.
My ultimate desire would be to have the skill of Chinese or Taiwanese tea craftsmen impart their knowledge on the Kenyan Small holders, but if the assam variatel is not conducive to hand making techniques then we might have to stick with the closer neighbours. My concern is that I have seen almost no hand crafted orthodox teas come from India and Sri Lanka. Perhaps you know of some?
Thanks as well Guy. I am glad you are promoting tea from Africa.
Well I don’t like to brag (or to breach client confidentiality) but we have been mentoring a small tea grower in Sri Lanka in the art of adding value by hand making tea. She has taught a small team of tea makers and is now selling some superb hand made black teas to Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly and to Harney & Sons. This shows that with determination and the right mindset it can be done – whether it can be done by a Chinese tea maker in Kenya is another question entirely.
Nigel at Teacraft
Cool thing! thanks for sharing
Great first step toward improving the livelihoods of small-scale tea farmers. Hope this becomes a success.
After a very informative discussion with Joy W’Njuguna of Royal Tea of Kenya, I realize now that I did not get my facts straight.
The KTDA is no longer operated and controlled by the government of Kenya but by the 500,000 small holders it represents. It was Joy’s father Samuel who fought diligently to wrestle away control of the KTDA from Gov’t coffers and let the thousands of small farmers oversee it’s operation. In doing so, the lives of many of the small holders has been elevated to much better then a”rudimentary lifestyle” as I put it in the article. This is great news all around. I do hope that this trend continues and companies like Royal Tea who advocate for better wages and conditions for small holders is a growing trend. We will be the beneficiary’s over here by getting tea that will be out of this world.
I thank you all for your comments.
KTDA has not done anything different to make farmers happy and it is only through value addition by farmers themselves which will help them fetch fair prices from their hard work. am speaking as a farmer who understand how this industry is operated in kenya.
this is a great article indeed that you have done. i am a mall scale farmer of tea from Kenya and it is true that farmers have never seen anything meaningful from tea even though we hear that Kenyan tea i very expensive abroad. i would like to know more about cottage industries that can help small scale farmers especially the youth so that we can earn reasonable earning from tea farming especially no with the new variety of purple tea that majority of farmer are turning to.if it i possible please contact me so that you can give more insight and assistance so that we can start making necessary arrangement to start packing our own tea. thanks for a great article
Great stuff this is.I have been researching widely on farming on the internet and I did come across the home processed tea from china and I wondered how the Kenyan Tea Industry has never heard of that.
I have grown picking tea since childhood on the slopes of Aberdares and just the other day I came across the Justea initiative and I am eagerly looking forward to its fulfillment so that we young tea farmers do not slave as our parents slaved on this small scale tea farms while earning peanuts.
Looking forward to working together with you guys.
I am impressed by your article and am very interested to know hat has happened with your trip with WOW Ventures. Fallen in love with tea, I have somehow become committed with ending the poverty cycle in tea pickers. Kenya is the first country I want to start with this long quest for ending of the vicious cycle in tea.
The article is MISLEADING,Kenya farmers affiliated to Kenya Tea Development Agency get 67%_80% of auction prices. There are initiatives going on the Kenya tea industry aimed at capturing the Russian,China .. American markets. The best entry for the author of this article is to partner with players in the tea industry in light the regulations governing the industry.
Wow! It’s fascinating. Gracias por compartir