LETTERS: Mechanised tea picking should be embraced

Workers harvest tea using a plucking machine in Kericho. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI
Workers harvest tea using a plucking machine in Kericho. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI 

For the longest time tea has played a vital role in the growth of Kenya’s socio-economic space. The revenue generated from the sale of the cash crop locally and in terms of foreign exchange is enormous.

A 2017 tea industry report by Agricultural and Food Authority’s Tea Directorate indicate that export earnings rose by eight per cent from Sh120 billion in 2016 to Sh129 billion last year — the highest export earnings in the last five years.

Local consumption increased by 27 per cent from 29 million kilogrammes to 27 million kilogrammes being the highest over a period of five years.

Globally, many farmers have adopted mechanised agriculture. The industrial revolution in Great Britain in 1760 set the stage for the mechanised agriculture and provided the transition from hand production methods to machines. Its impact has today allowed farming to become much less labour-intensive.

In Kenya, especially the tea sector mechanisation has picked up the momentum has not been sustained. Despite the introduction of the tea plucking machines, Kenya is yet to embrace it due to futile attempts to reconcile those for and against the idea. Court battles have further slowed down its adoption.

Undeniably, it is a fact that if appropriately implemented, mechanisation is capable of protecting our natural resources such as soil, air and water while boosting food production.

We must look at the impact of mechanisation not only from the few, generally clear and measurable criteria namely production, productivity, income, employment and trade but rather its sustainability from an environmental, social and ethical consideration.

Technologies that cut across the agricultural spectrum could mean that we have the potential to be locally sustainable and internationally competitive.

Mechanisation is the way to go if we want to ensure that our tea competes at the same level with large-scale producers such Sri Lanka, Turkey, China and India, among others. Many of these markets have embraced mechanised harvesting of tea.

Tea picking is about quality thus regardless of the method used the quality of the crop should be intact in order to command a favourable market share when exported. Machines have reduced dependence on labour and increased efficiency of tea harvesting.

Two workers or four workers for bigger machines can clear a hectare in an hour while still maintaining the same quality harvest. This reduces the costs incurred on labour and time.

Players in the sector, especially the tea pickers have maintained that they are not against the alternative methods but they want an agreement to specify the portion of tea that would be plucked mechanically so that they are not rendered jobless.

However, according to Kenya Tea Growers Association, implementation of mechanisation will be based on attrition such that if one retires or dies, machines will replace them.

Studies have shown how mechanisation has improved rural livelihoods by raising incomes through high service provision on the farm, for road transport and in the development of entrepreneurial enterprise in the agricultural product value-addition chain.

Advantages of mechanised harvesting are broad. Today this type harvesting is not only practised in Asia but also in Africa. Tea producing countries such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania use this technology in some of their estates.

Today, Kenya is the third largest tea producer in the world after China and Sri Lanka. The top producers have all clutched at mechanised harvesting. This way they have managed to save on labour costs, efficiency in harvesting and time, and all these translates to profits.

Technological evolution cannot be avoided, either way, it has caught up with us. It is either we conform or its effects will dawn on us negatively. It is time that all the stakeholders in the tea sector came up with a policy that will steer the sector forward by discussing ways of embracing mechanised tea harvesting.

Pauline Macharia is a marketing and communication consultant.