JUNE 26, 2019:
A storm has been brewing in the tea sector for some time now.
That storm may take a worse turn next week when the contract between tea farmers and the Kenya Tea Development Authority, KTDA, comes to an end this Sunday.
I am informed that the tribulations of small-scale tea farmers, which has severely strained their relations with KTDA, is a touchy, life and death matter that nobody wants to touch. I am told it is taboo subject in media houses too.
But, as a country, we are staring at a crisis that we have to confront.
In recent couple of months, we have been treated to dramatic scenes and media reports of tea farmers uprooting their crops or promising to do so because the crop no longer pays.
Kenyans were recently treated to a spectacle of a Nyeri man uprooting his tea bushes in Chinga Ward while complaining about hard economic times.
Similar incidents have taken place in other parts of central Kenya including Muranga, Kiambu, Kisii, parts of the Rift Valley and former Western province.
Small-scale tea farmers in Kakamega and Vihiga counties are reported to be shifting their focus to alternative sources of income despite the huge potential for the cash crop. Growers, who own tiny parcels of land usually ranging between an acre to five, are uprooting their tea to create room for other food crops. Some are turning to dairy farming, poultry and horticulture.
We have been here before. This is how the collapse of coffee started.
Small-scale tea farmers in the mentioned regions are frustrated with the management of the sector.
The greatest challenge being faced by the small tea growers is that the prices they get for green leaf is never sufficient even to meet the cost of production. The financial security of the farmers is threatened and farmers are plunging into chronic indebtedness. The story is the same across the country.
In order to understand the magnitude and dimensions of the problems, I have in recent days held consultations with representatives of small-scale farmers and directors from various parts of the country. The last of such consultations took place just this morning here in my office.
What is coming out clearly is that we risk losing this top foreign exchange earner that has long been associated with our country if we don’t take urgent and drastic action.
The people or the body to do it are the top leadership of the KTDA.
Yet the sweeping feeling among farmers is that KTDA has lost touch with the farmers and their interests and have now put the country on the path to losing the crop.
It is the usual tale of conflict of interest, lack of transparency, impunity that includes disobeying court orders, corruption and wrong attitude that has killed many sectors before now getting entrenched in KTDA.
We need to urgently address the price gap between auction and retail; which is currently so large. There is no fairness when tea is auctioned at Ksh60 per kg and the farmer is paid Ksh18 for the same.
The price gap has given rise to briefcase buyers, which is an indication that the system is broken. These buyers approach the farmers directly because they know the farmers are broke and have lost faith in the auction system.
It has also given rise to hawking of tea. Hawking of tea is illegal. It gives farmers low prices for the green leaf. It makes the farmer forgo the bonuses since they do not sell to KTDA. We lose at least 100 million kilogrammes of green leaf to hawking each year. But farmers resort to hawking because of frustrations and financial vulnerability.
It is a manifestation of something fundamentally wrong at KTDA and its payment to farmers.
Besides resorting to hawking, farmers are permanently resorting to some form of borrowing from unscrupulous moneylenders and shylocks to make ends meet. In the end, they are permanently in debt.
The payment system must be reviewed urgently and fundamentally to benefit the grower.
We must urgently address the marketing of Kenyan tea.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2015 found that KTDA is weak in marketing and leadership; with cartels running the show and controlling the marketing activities.
FAO recommended the formation of an independent KTDA Marketing Agency to more effectively market Kenyan tea and position it world wide.
There is urgent need for the Ministry of Agriculture to institute immediate measures and transform KTDA to enable that body serve the farmers.
Unfortunately, there is a feeling among farmers that the current Board cannot transform the agency. Some members have served on that board since the year 2000 through manipulation of processes.
There is need for a Forensic audit on financial management of KTDA, its group of companies and all 67 KTDA managed tea factories. Currently, KTDA is not supervised or regulated like banks, insurances or cooperatives. This must be addressed.
Parliament needs to come up with legislation to end the KTDA monopoly. There is need to open up this sector to competition especially in small-scale subsector.
The Ministry of Agriculture must embark on deliberate steps to remove cartels from this crop through greater transparency in the selling of tea and payment of farmers.
Our Judiciary also needs to play its role and stand with the farmers to save the sector. It can and should expedite litigation involving farmers and it must ensure its rulings are respected and enforced.
Our increasingly effective Directorate of Criminal Investigations needs to take interest in the woes of the farmers. DCI and other relevant agencies need to investigate the goings on at the KTDA and safeguard the interests of the farmers and the nation. There is certainly something wrong.
In a nutshell, we will not sit back and watch as tea goes the way of coffee and sugarcane. Farmers are complaining of an array of malpractices, including misappropriation of funds. They want a thorough investigation and audit of the parent body KTDA and culprits be held accountable.
We must not lose tea to impunity and corruption.
H.E RAILA ODINGA, EGH
JUNE 26TH, 2019.