Flip-flop policy on tea machines irks multinationals


Farmers harvest tea using a tea plucking machine in Kericho County. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NMG

Multinationals in the tea industry have faulted Agriculture Cabinet secretary Peter Munya over his change of heart to back banning plucking machines as an election carrot targeting to woo thousands of casuals in the August 9 poll.

The firms, through their lobby, have warned that such a move will result in layoffs due to the high cost of labour as well as make Kenya’s tea industry uncompetitive.

Apollo Kiarii, chief executive at Kenya Tea Growers Association — an umbrella body that represents multinationals, says should the ministry ban the use of machines, they will have to cut the number of workers to compensate for the increased cost brought about by handpicking.

Mr Munya last Sunday threw the tea sector into confusion with his remarks over tea plucking machines, which was a departure from his earlier position encouraging the sector to introduce the gadgets.

“If Munya makes true his threats, then our tea businesses will have to downsize because we cannot cope with the high cost of labour,” said Mr Kiarii.

He said the multinational firms have embraced the use of tea plucking machines to mitigate the high cost of labour and that banning them would be disastrous to the sector.

Tea firms say they have saved up to Sh10 a kilo in the plucking of the crop following the adoption of picking machines.

The firms pay up to Sh15 a kilo to labourers for every kilo of tea that they pluck, making it the single largest component of production cost.

Mr Kiarii said the machines can pluck 400 kilogrammes of tea a day compared to 45 kilogrammes that labourers can.

On Sunday, the Cabinet secretary made an about-turn on the use of the machines in picking tea saying Kenya was not industrialised enough to use them as it was denying the locals job opportunities.

Mr Munya had, in March, directed Kenya Tea Development Agency to ensure the plucking machines are provided to farmers in each zone.

“Kenya is not industrialised and we need to stop using machines now, I am going to stop it,” he said.

Mr Munya had earlier said the machines were meant to increase farmers’ earnings and protect their health given that most of them wake up early in the morning to pluck the produce.

However, the minister now says there are not enough job opportunities right now in the country and that people would play a key role in doing the jobs that would be done by machines.

A good number of tea farms in the west of the Rift Valley region — Nandi, Kericho and Bomet — have employed the use of machines to minimise labour costs.

The use of tea plucking machines has been a controversial issue in the tea industry with the unions fighting its introduction by multinational firms due to job losses.

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