Tea: Purple shoots of progress
As a drought wreaks havoc on agricultural output across the country, Kenya is trying to boost production of drought-resistant crops like purple tea.
Unlike other tea farmers in Kericho, a lush highland plain atop Kenya’s Rift Valley, Thomas Cheruiyot’s tea trees did not all dry up during the drought earlier this year. Cheruiyot has 5,000 trees of black tea and 1,000 trees of purple tea – a heartier speciality variety that is more resistant to drought and other threats that was first grown in the Mount Kenya region – on his two-acre farm in Kapcheptoror. He had carefully pruned his crops to increase their chances of survival.
Other tea farmers in the area were not as lucky as Cheruiyot. The long drought has made tea leaves dry and reduced their ability to sprout fast. As a result, Kenya’s tea production is set to hit a new low this year. The most recent figures from the government-run Tea Directorate, which licenses manufacturers and advises policy, shows that production for the month of February dropped by more than half from 54m kg last year to 22.6m kg this year.
Around 10% of the Kenyan population depends on tea for their livelihoods.
Kenya’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture. The country is Africa’s largest exporter of tea and the fourth-largest producer of tea worldwide. Around 10% of the Kenyan population depends on tea for their livelihoods. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, tea contributes 4% to the country’s gross domestic product. Last year, tea export earnings amounted to $1.2bn, a slight drop from the $1.3bn earned in 2015, according to the Agriculture and Food Authority.
Higher selling price
The country’s tea agency is betting on drought-resistant varieties and speciality teas in order to avert future shocks and boost earnings for the industry. “Our target is that 5% of tea production should be speciality tea, of which 50-70% should be purple tea,” Samuel Ogola, managing director of Kenya’s Tea Directorate, tells The Africa Report. “So we are talking about 25m kg of tea being purple and other speciality teas.” Kenyan farmers are particularly keen on purple tea, as it can weather poor growing conditions and has a higher selling price.
According to the country’s Tea Research Institute (TRI), purple tea is rich in anthocyanin, a special antioxidant said to deliver health benefits. The TRI developed purple tea over a period of more than two decades to help strengthen the country’s export diversification. The variety is resistant to drought, frost, disease and pests and is also high-yielding. The directorate is encouraging farmers to grow it. “We are meeting growers in each county, telling them that now they can get a licence to process their own purple tea,” says Ogola. The Tea Directorate is also betting on the adoption of about 50 other drought-resistant strains of tea that have been developed by researchers in the industry.
[Purple tea] is resistant to drought, frost, disease and pests and is also high-yielding.
Ogola adds that the directorate is working with county and local governments to boost speciality tea farming. But there is a long way to go. In 2015, Kenya produced just 427,000kg of speciality tea, compared to 443m kg of black tea.
Back in the lush rolling highlands of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Cheruiyot planted purple tea when he heard of its drought-resistant qualities and higher prices. But his enthusiasm for the crop soon waned because his region lacked the infrastructure for processing speciality teas.
He had assumed that the purple tea would be processed in the same factories that process black tea. “I planted 1,000 tea trees in 2014 and when I started picking, [the distributor] could not pay me more than what they were offering for the ordinary tea,” says Cheruiyot. Due to the lack of capacity, the processor mixed the purple with black tea and paid farmers the typical rate of $0.14/kg. Cheruiyot then sold his purple tea to a purple tea factory in a neighbouring county, but it stopped buying his supplies after a while. He got $0.80/kg, significantly higher than the price for black tea. Purple tea processing involves hand rolling, which is a different method than the traditional crush, tear, curl procedure used for handling black tea.
To boost production of purple tea and other speciality varieties, the government is encouraging the creation of new factories that are capable of processing them. In a series of new regulations, the directorate relaxed the requirements for starting a cottage factory. Previously, 250 hectares of speciality tea were needed in order for one to set up a factory, but it is now just 20 hectares. “Two or three growers can pool together and set up a cooperative or a company and get a licence to process,” says Ogola.
Since relaxing the rules last September, the directorate has licensed seven purple tea factories, and others are in the pipeline. The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), which is an umbrella agency for smallholder tea farmers, operates three of these factories, but they are not yet operational. One group in Kangaita is growing 15 acres of purple tea as a pilot programme. The Kangaita plant also processes white, green and some speciality teas.
The other KTDA-managed tea factories, in Michimikuru and Itumbe, have the capacity to process purple tea, but operations in these factories have not yet begun. “The [market for] speciality teas, including purple tea, is still young, and KTDA is also making efforts to expand the markets,” says John Bett, the authority’s marketing manager. Currently, the KTDA exports small shipments of less than 300kg to Britain, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States.
…we have not even scratched the surface yet…
Martin Kabaki, chief executive officer of Kenyan Purple Tea – a company selling and promoting the product – is optimistic about the potential for purple tea. “Kenyan purple tea has the potential to put Kenya on the speciality tea map similar to what Matcha has done for Japan,” he says.
Kabaki started by exporting 400kg of purple tea in 2016 to the US and now says his company is on the way to exporting 10tn per annum. “The market potential for Kenyan purple tea in the US is great, and we have not even scratched the surface yet,” Kabaki argues. “I recently showcased the Kenyan purple tea at Expo West, which is the biggest food and beverage tradeshow in North America. The interest that I received was overwhelming.”
For now, the specialist grows will continue focusing on niche markets in developed economies. Locally, speciality tea consumption is still small. According to the Tea Directorate’s Tea Industry Performance Report issued in February, local consumption of all types of tea dropped to 2.2m kg in the month of February as compared to 2.26m kg over the same period last year. This has not spoiled the growers’ optimism for the longer term. “Speciality tea has picked up very fast even in Kenya. It is in high demand by the urban population. But then, this population – including those who are health conscious and trendy – is not too big,” says Ogola.