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.