“Tea is good for the government”

By Hannah Elliott

During the final week of this first round of fieldwork, I have been reflecting on the issue of sovereignty in Kenya’s tea industry and control over the revenue it generates. Tea is one of Kenya’s leading export commodities and earner of foreign exchange, and has long been thought of as a crop that is, in the words of one of my informants, “good for the government”. Tea was so good for the government that, for many years until the tea sector’s liberalisation during the late-1990s and early 2000s, it was closely controlled from Nairobi, and one needed official permission from the Tea Board of Kenya both to plant and to uproot tea. In a contemporary context of what is popularly known as ‘devolution’ in Kenya – that is, the decentralisation of government – tea fields have become battle grounds between the national and county governments over control over local resources and the revenue they generate. 

Devolution was ushered in with Kenya’s March 2013 elections and represents the country’s biggest political transformation since independence. Through devolution, key areas of power were devolved from Kenya’s central government to the county level – specifically to new elected local government bodies established in all 42 of Kenya’s counties. Devolution is highly popular in Kenya; the reform was voted in by two-thirds of the population through a referendum in 2010 on a new constitution, a key feature of which was decentralisation. Through the disbursement of national government funds to county governments, the new political system promised the redistribution of Kenya’s wealth from its capital Nairobi to the county level.

In this context, local resources, including cash crops like tea, are of great interest to county governments who are now seeking to wrestle control of the revenue they generate. In Kericho County, the heartlands of Kenya’s tea industry, the county governor proclaimed his county’s right to ‘benefit’ from its tea production, demanding a share of the tea revenue which he claimed went entirely to the national government. This claim has since been disproved through research conducted by the non-profit agency Africa Check; the agency pointed to a revenue known as ‘cess’ on tea that is paid to the county in which the tea is produced. Still, the Kericho governor’s claim points to the tensions brewing in Kenya’s tea sector between national and county governments over control of the crop, tensions which also implicate the private companies who drive its production.

Conversations about these political tensions with tea producers in Central Kenya indicate concerns regarding the future durability of some of the key infrastructures through which Kenyan tea is produced and moved. The manager of one estate explained that the cess generated from tea which now goes to county governments used to be managed by an arm of the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA). The KTGA holds the interests of tea producers at heart, he explained, and the cess would be invested in the maintenance of access roads to ensure the smooth transportation of green leaf from field to factory. Roads in this particular part of Central Kenya have, he argued, remained in impeccable condition as a result. Now that this money goes to the county government, the manager went on, it gets diverted to other kinds of investments, “we don’t always understand which”. His comment hints at suspicions of misuse of funds at the county level, or the devolution of corruption, which has, for many Kenyans, been a disappointing side-effect of decentralisation.

In Central Kenya, conversations about sovereignty vis-à-vis tea also raise concerns about the future of the land upon which tea is grown. In Nandi County, another important tea growing area where multinational companies own large tea plantations, a petition was filed to the national government demanding that the decision made over the renewal of the companies’ 99-year land leases should be made by the county and not the national government. The land was originally leased by the British colonial government for the production of tea to white settlers and European companies, resulting in the dispossession of the local population. The petition claimed that now the local population should make decisions over who owns the land. If successful, it implied that the county government would come to control the vast swathes of land upon which tea is cultivated in Nandi, and potentially take over its ownership. The case is ongoing, and sends out a warning signal to large multinational tea companies operating in Kenya. One plantation manager working for such a company reflected on the potential consequences of counties taking over the ownership of land where tea is cultivated. Counties would not have the capacity to manage the crop, he said – “the resource would be dead”.

In Central Kenya, such concerns about future control over land also relate to the issue of soaring land values. The proximity of this area to Nairobi has meant that, with the capital’s exploding population, the value of land is increasing by the day as the city sprawls out into its neighbouring regions. Many of my informants talked of the risks of tea bushes being uprooted en masse, the land currently used for the steady generation of income through tea cultivation being given over to real estate and the making of fast money. One manager of a tea plantation pointed out nearby areas that “used to be coffee estates and now they’re real estates”.

Land in Kenya has a fraught history and has long been associated with political patronage, power and corruption. My informants who worked on large tea estates and whose livelihoods hinged on the success of Kenya’s tea industry worried about county governments gaining control over the large tracts of land upon which tea is produced, and felt that they could not be trusted to manage tea responsibly. Tea might be ‘good for the government’ due to the revenue it generates, but the enormous wealth that real estate can generate for private individuals is seen to pose a threat to the sector. It will be interesting to observe how the national government might seek to protect the tea industry against this threat and ensure its own stake in its future.