Tea farmers are busy digging their own graves even as the strategic thinkers who are supposed to protect them wring their hands.
As the tea hawking practice gathers pace, so will the unravelling of an 80-year old industry that has withstood some tough eras.
Farmers, especially in Central Kenya, have turned to new tea processors who buy leaf on a cash basis and do not impose strict standards as the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) which demands two leaves and a bud only.
The farmers argue that they receive between Sh20 and Sh30 from the cash brokers for a kilo of green leaf while KTDA pays them Sh15 at the end of the month, much of which they use to pay the pickers. The higher amounts thus makes more sense as they use the money to pay for their day-to-day expenses.
But KTDA does pay an end-of-year bonus that pushes the total amount paid for a kilo close to an average Sh6 and Sh70 in the case of Central Kenya whose teas fetch better prices at the auction.
Beyond the arithmetic however, is a more ominous shift that could see the stability of the KTDA factories and the small scale tea sector run into serious headwinds and eventual turmoil that has claimed coffee, pyrethrum and sugar.
Economic mercenaries have wreaked havoc in these agricultural sectors leaving destitute farmers in their wake.
The economic mercenaries come cloaked in investors garb but they are like the proverbial locusts, they only come to eat and destroy.
Gallons of ink have been dedicated to demonstrating how the vultures have wrecked the coffee, pyrethrum and sugar industries; and now they have come for tea. This is not fair competition between tea processors but a systematic decimation of the sector.
We've been here before and the script is eerily familiar; ending up in a collective gnashing of farmers’ teeth.
As KTDA factories are starved of leaf, they will lose their efficiency and ability to pay good rates. Debts may become common and operations strained.
Having ruined the competition, the mercenary factories will be at will to pay throwaway prices for green leaf leaving the farmer critically impoverished.
The mercenary factories have unleashed hordes of brokers and middlemen to purchase tea irrespective of its state or where it is sourced from.
This is likely to spawn another problem; theft. It could become common to wake up and find your tea field picked clean and the leaf gone. The buyers do not have any record-keeping system and whoever brings the tea gets paid. Criminals without a patch of tea could soon become millionaires.
A collapse of the extension services is also feasible. KTDA currently advises farmers on tea clones, proper farm management practices and imports fertiliser in bulk allowing the small scale tea farmers to purchase the input at below-market rates.
The mercenary factories have none of these support systems and the farmers will be left on their own. This is the key reason that most farmers won’t sever their ties with KTDA factories even as they continue to double-deal with the mercenary factories.
Unfortunately, this is not sustainable. To continue running efficient operations and provide these services, the KTDA factories need green leaf in optimum amounts and farmers selling to the mercenary factories only hasten the collapse of the entire sector.
Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA), as the regulator, has done the tea sector a major disservice by registering tea factories that have no crop to process, thus creating the hawking problem.
KTDA on its part continues to stick to an outdated model that farmers can only be paid Sh15 at the end of the month. It is time the Agency responded by being more nimble. The KTDA board needs to tell us why farmers can’t be paid say Sh22 for each kilo of leaf at the end of each week.
Continuing to shout itself hoarse and prodding for arrests is a poor way to address a problem whose solution is majorly in their hands.
Tea hawking if left unchecked will kill the sector. Farmers, AFA and KTDA all have their part to play before it is too late and we are all left crying ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?’ ” — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”