An initial taste of tea country

By Hannah Elliott

I’m just a few days into my first fieldwork trip for Research Line A of the SUSTEIN project, which takes me to sites of tea production in Kenya. While I’ve spent a number of years conducting ethnographic research in the region, this is my first time working with tea, and I’m appreciating the pace and excitement of early fieldwork when there is so much to learn. My entry into the world of tea begins in a taxi on the road north out of Nairobi into Central Kenya, a significant tea and coffee growing region. As we pass bright green rolling tea fields, I chat with the taxi driver, Benson, about the research I’m undertaking. Benson himself comes from Nyeri, a Central Kenyan county where it is mainly smallholders who cultivate tea alongside other cash crops such as coffee. Benson comments that in Nyeri ‘tea used to come with a good price’. ‘People used to educate their children with [money made from selling] tea’, he says, but now people are considering uprooting tea and planting crops that bring profit (faida), like maize. Benson also points to another major development impacting those who work with tea: mechanised harvesting, which threatens the livelihoods of those who make a living from manual tea plucking. Benson’s reflections on the future of tea production and its uncertainties would resonate through my conversations during the weeks of fieldwork ahead.

We proceed along the well-paved roads that are a material effect of Central Kenya’s booming cash crop economy: good roads are needed here in order to quickly and efficiently transport commodities such as tea for export. We pass a range of places that offer a glimpse into the patchwork of sites that constitute tea production in this region. Known as the ‘White Highlands’ during colonial times, Central Kenya is home to a number of large tea plantations established by European settlers and multinational companies who, until the late colonial period, were the entities legally allowed to cultivate tea. These sites tend to be referred to locally as ‘estates’, perhaps due to the rather negative connotations of the term ‘plantation’, especially in other parts of the world such as the American south. Today, many large tea estates in this area are owned by wealthy Kenyan families whose forefathers took over farms owned by European settlers around independence in 1963. These men were often powerful political figures who served in the first independence government led by Jomo Kenyatta. In the distance, far from the main road, we glimpse other, much smaller sites of tea production that are owned by smallholders, some of whose forefathers entered into tea production with the crop’s Africanisation after 1954. Smallholder farms are also homes and often rely on family labour. Smallholders typically engage in other kinds of agricultural production alongside tea, such as food for subsistence and dairy cattle, sending milk for sale in Nairobi.

After an hour or so we reach my first fieldwork site: a small tea farm run by a third generation British settler, Lucinda, which has been home to her family for over a century. It has expanded and contracted from a ‘farm’ producing tea on a small scale, to a bigger ‘estate’-like site of production with permanent employees, back to a smaller ‘farm’ which sends a small amount of tea to a local factory and hires itinerant labourers to pluck the tea on a fortnightly basis.

Over cups of tea, Lucinda explains the farm’s history. It was established by her grandfather who, after settling in the East African Protectorate (which later became the Kenyan colony) in 1906, came to be one of the first people in the country to produce tea on a commercial basis. He was given the opportunity to buy land in 1910, at which time he established the farm Lucinda lives on today, and began experimenting with different crops. His experiments with tea began when he received tea seeds from a friend in Assam in India, a key tea-growing node of the British Empire which Kenya’s tea industry would come to emanate. Lucinda reflected that the friend in Assam must have also sent instructions as to how to process green leaf into black tea. As the tea seeds developed into bushes ready for harvest, her grandfather set up his own makeshift factory on the farm where he could break up the leaf and start the oxidisation process through which black tea is made. With time, the farm expanded its tea production, becoming something of a tea estate, hiring permanent tea pluckers and supplying tea to Kenya’s first commercial tea factory, established by the colonial company Brooke Bond which would later become Unilever. The farm’s relationship with the factory shaped production practices. During the 1960s, Lucinda’s parents, who had by this time inherited the farm from her grandfather, uprooted the tea bushes planted from seed and replaced them with clone varieties, a requirement of the factory which sought the consistency in flavor and colour that clone bushes could provide. Later, as Unilever announced its ambitions to source all of its tea ‘sustainably’ by 2020, Lucinda’s farm would be required to conform with the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainability standards and would be subjected to both announced and impromptu audits. 

During the late-1970s, Lucinda’s family sold a significant amount of their estate to a local man who himself was interested in cultivating tea, and downsized to a small-scale tea farm. Lucinda remarks that they no longer “live on the tea” here but that continuing to grow tea “keeps us in touch with the factory”. It is through this relationship with the factory that the certification of tea becomes important. The Unilever factory, through the work of a busy extension services officer, seeks to ensure that all of its 300+ outgrowers comply with the Rainforest Alliance standards so that it can legitimately claim that all of the tea that passes through its withering trays and cutting and drying machines is sustainable. It is also the work of this extension officer to ensure that farms like Lucinda’s can demonstrate their compliance with the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainability standards during an audit. Such officers are crucial infrastructure in the production of ‘sustainable’ tea.

Today, Lucinda’s grandfather’s original factory still stands within the farm’s grounds, but has long been repurposed. It now houses a shop, a private enterprise of a farm employee selling basic commodities to passersby along the road behind the farm. Like many of Kenya’s colonial era buildings, it has been improvised to render it compatible with contemporary life: the old factory sports a mabati (corrugated iron) extension to create an additional room, while a washing line strung up in its tiny compound and hung with drying clothes hints at its domestic usage.

Before leaving I am shown around the indigenous forest that lies within the grounds of Lucinda’s farm, which is also subject to the auditor’s gaze as a natural area that must be preserved under the Rainforest Alliance’s standards. As I catch a lift back to Nairobi, my mind buzzes with all that I must write down and follow up on. This initial glimpse into the world of Kenyan tea production has opened up numerous lines of enquiry to pursue over the days to come. How does a third generation tea grower like Lucinda view the recent drive towards ‘sustainable’ tea production in Kenya? To what extent might longer-standing ethical and moral ideas surrounding tea production endure? How do factory field extension officers engage with outgrower farmers like Lucinda and ensure their compliance with standards? What does producing ‘sustainable’ tea really mean in practice?

(Note that all names are pseudonyms in order to protect informants’ identity.)