“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.

The Labour of Sustainable Tea

By Hannah Elliott

This week I’ve once again been moving between sites of tea production in Central Kenya, observing the rhythms of everyday life on tea plantations.

Over the past weeks of fieldwork, I’ve been noticing the ways in which the notion of ‘sustainability’ is deployed in the language of my informants. ‘Sustainability’ is, of course, a temporal concept that refers to the future and ideas of longevity and durability. Over the past decade or so, sustainability has become a buzzword, mobilised by international development organisations and, increasingly, multinational companies, including through the certified sustainability standards that are a critical focus for SUSTEIN. During my research thus far, my informants have expressed a general consensus as to what ‘sustainability’ means in the context of such certified standards for tea. In particular, they talk about the importance of taking care of the environment in order to preserve it for future generations to come.

Yet, when discussing the challenges facing the tea industry more generally outside of the specific context of certification, managers of tea farms and factories deploy the notion of sustainability and sustainable business in its more traditional sense – that is, in terms of its future profitability. One senior employee of a tea plantation and factory commented that “last year, I’m not sure people made money in tea”. A field officer working on another plantation noted that “in the future, tea business might not be sustainable”.

There are a number of reasons as to this uncertain future. A major factor is the rising cost of tea production, in particular pertaining to labour. The major sustainability standards governing tea production in Kenya (i.e. Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and UTZ) require certified producers to pay labourers such as pluckers and factory workers no less than the national minimum wage. In countries where labourers are organised through trade unions, they may be able to negotiate higher wages. In Kenya, large-scale tea producers employing labourers are typically members of the Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA), established in 1931 to promote and protect the interests of the plantation sector. Labourers themselves tend to be members of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU). Every two years, KPAWU and KTGA negotiate a collective bargaining agreement during which pluckers’, among other tea labouers’, wages are decided. In recent years, however, these negotiations have reached deadlock; KPAWU demands a 30% wage increment, while KTGA argues that this is not viable and would render production costs too high. From KTGA’s perspective, the plucking rates demanded by KPAWU are exorbitant and unrealistic when considering the amount per kilogram paid at the factory and the Mombasa auction. Tea prices at Mombasa are said to have long stagnated at around 2 USD per kilogram. Furthermore, managers note, complying with sustainability standards introduces new costs to tea production. Employers must supply labourers with adequate protective clothing, for example, and ensure that worker housing is of a satisfactory standard. Becoming certified itself costs money in terms of extension services to outgrowers. Producers themselves must also pay for the audits through which certification is granted. Managers worry that these costs, combined with rising costs of labour and low prices at auction, threaten the viability of the sector as profit margins are rendered increasingly slim.  

In this context, many of the managers I have been speaking to consider mechanised harvesting as key to the sustainability of the tea industry. Mechanised harvesting reduces the costs of labour, since a small number of skilled employees are required to operate the machinery, significantly reducing tea producers’ reliance on hand-plucking. Reducing numbers of people employed on plantations could also free up land for cultivation, managers argue, since a good deal of land is currently occupied by lines of workers’ housing.

Tea fields with worker housing ‘lines’ in the background. Hannah Elliott, 3 November 2018

Yet mechanisation has long been a contentious issue in Kenya’s tea industry. Pluckers are anxious about the implications of mechanisation for their livelihoods; although tea plucking is generally not deemed desirable or well-paid work, it is a steady and reliable form of employment that requires unskilled labour in large numbers. Furthermore, large plantations provide workers with housing, basic services such as water, and often childcare and health care provision. While low wages have tended to mean that tea workers struggle to move out of plantation labour, work on plantations nevertheless provides some stability for those struggling in rural economies. The Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union itself and the umbrella organisation the Central Organisation of Trade Unions in Kenya have protested against the prospect of mechanised harvesting and urged local governments in tea producing areas to ban companies from using machines. One former employee of a large multinational tea company operating in Kericho, a major tea-growing region of Kenya, recalled having to conduct mechanised harvesting at night because of the risk of attacks on machinery and those operating it should harvesting be conducted during daylight. While mechanised harvesting signifies sustainability for tea producers – the possibility for the tea industry to continue to grow and profit – it signifies quite the opposite for tea pluckers. Mechanized harvesting threatens to destabilise the future for many in a country where formal, and therefore stable, work opportunities are increasingly scarce.

In Central Kenya, mechanisation remains something of a future fantasy for the managers of large tea plantations and factories whom I’ve been spending time with. Most mechanised harvesting in Kenya is carried out in Kericho, the heartlands of Kenya’s tea production, and by large multinational companies like James Finlays and Unilever, with the latter reported by some of my informants to now be harvesting over 50% of their crop mechanically. Producers must first invest in replanting fields with the latest clone tea plant seedlings that have been developed to respond well to mechanised plucking. Most large estates in Central Kenya contain varieties of clone bushes that were established and planted in the 1950s and 1960s which had not been developed with mechanisation in mind. Replanting itself is a costly endeavour, and producers must endure decreased production for around five years before new plants are mature enough for harvest. Nevertheless, mechanisation is widely considered to be ‘the future’ of the tea industry among tea producers in Central Kenya and key to its ‘sustainability’, and hand plucking and long lines of workers’ housing a thing of the past.

Certification Pressures

By Hannah Elliott

It’s been a busy week of shuttling between tea farms and factories and offices in Nairobi, meeting people who are all, in their own way, part of the infrastructure through which sustainable tea is discursively and materially produced.

My trips into tea-growing country in Central Kenya have taken me to several sites of production. One is a tea factory and associated plantation of approximately 300 hectares that is certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance. Tea growing here began on white settler farms but later, during the late colonial period, a consolidated tea plantation and factory were established by a British company. During the 1980s, the plantation and factory were bought by a large Kenyan investment holding company, at which point the factory and the estate transitioned to local ownership.   

After passing through several gates on the road that passes through the plantation and towards the factory and signing in to guest books administered by security guards, I meet with the factory’s extension manager, Geoffrey. Geoffrey is primarily responsible for ensuring that the numerous outgrower farmers that supply tea to the factory produce tea according to the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainability standards. While a proportion of the green leaf that this factory processes into black tea is grown on the factory’s associated plantation, a large majority (around 80%) is sourced from outgrower farmers who are registered with the factory. Getting all these outgrowers to comply with certified standards is, I come to learn this week, a particularly demanding task. People like Geoffrey must conduct numerous outreach visits and trainings in order to transmit knowledge about the Rainforest Alliance standard to their outgrowers. They must follow up with internal audits and monitoring exercises to test their compliance. During an external audit, outgrowers will be selected at random, and for the factory to be re-awarded with a Rainforest Alliance certificate it is imperative that they are seen to comply.

It is due to this risk that tea factories often transition to full certification somewhat cautiously. Factories I’m encountering in Central Kenya (all of which are Rainforest Alliance certified) began their journey to certification by partially certifying their product. Easy targets for certification tend to be perceived as large plantations or ‘estates’ that are either owned by the same company as the factory or which supply the factory as outgrowers. These large plantations are seen as easily certified since they have a clear management structure that can ensure compliance with the standard. With partial certification, the tea supplied by smaller outgrowers tends to remain uncertified, which means that factories must segregate certified and non-certified green leaf, process it separately and pack it in sacks that are clearly labelled either ‘RFA’ (Rainforest Alliance) or ‘Non-RFA’ (non-Rainforest Alliance) for sale at auction.

Segregating Rainforest Alliance-certified tea (RFA) from non-certified tea (Non-RFA) at the green leaf reception area of a factory. Hannah Elliott, 18 November 2018.

Now many factories are seeking full certification so that all of the tea they sell at the Mombasa auction is certified. But this is no small task, and involves a lot of work, in particular on the part of extension officers like Geoffrey. Whispers circulate about one factory’s failure in a recent audit: rumour has it that it was the outgrowers who let the factory down. Such rumours warn of the risks undertaken in factories’ efforts at becoming fully certified. If a factory fails an audit, it risks losing its Rainforest Alliance certification altogether, and its tea will be sold as a non-certified product at the tea auction in Mombasa.

Given the costs inherent in certification (producers must not only invest heavily in extension services via personnel such as Geoffrey but also finance audits themselves) and the risk of failing in an audit, what motivates factories to undertake the transition to full certification? As managers at one private factory explain, the market for certified tea is growing, in particular in Europe, which increases the pressure to certify. In 2007, Unilever, the third largest tea company in the world, announced that it would only source tea for its Lipton teabags sustainably by 2015 and for all its teas by 2020. The company specified that only tea certified by the non-profit organisation Rainforest Alliance would be considered ‘sustainable’. Since, other major tea companies supplying western tea markets have followed suit, declaring that they will only buy tea that is certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance. Producers are not financially incentivised to certify as such: Rainforest Alliance-certified tea is not sold at a premium, meaning that non-certified tea doesn’t necessarily fetch lower prices than certified tea at auction. Nevertheless, producers explain, with the growing demand for Rainforest Alliance-certified tea from large tea companies, in the near future non-certified tea may simply not sell at auction. One factory’s extension officer explained to me that factory managers fear what he called the bei ya jioni – literally ‘evening price’ – that non-certified tea may fetch. The ‘evening price’ is a low price that is eventually accepted ‘late in the day’ by the tea brokers who sell on behalf of the factory. Sacks of non-certified tea may hang around for weeks or even months in warehouses in Mombasa, thus forcing the factory to accept a poor price.

One emerging theme from Research Line A is thus the pressure that falls upon tea producers to certify, and in particular to certify with Rainforest Alliance. Over the coming days, I’ll be exploring the effects of this pressure: the work lives of extension officers like Geoffrey and the relationships between them and the outgrowers whose compliance with standards they must ensure. I’m also interested in the material effects of the pressure to certify, including the production of numerous forms of documentation which provide auditors with evidence of factories’, estates’ and outgrowers’ compliance with sustainability standards. The audit itself is another key area of enquiry. Indeed, it is at the moment of the audit that the pressure to certify reaches its climax: that factories are judged ‘compliant’ or ‘non-compliant’ and in the process are branded ‘sustainable’ or ‘unsustainable’.

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.)