Why mechanisation is vital for survival of Kenya’s tea industry

A tea plucking machine in operation at a tea estate in Kericho.  

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

World over, tea-producing nations are embracing new technology through the implementation of automated tea manufacture and processing and mechanical tea harvesters, replacing hand picking.

Unfortunately for Kenya, the tea sector has been on the news for the wrong reasons over the past few years.

The industry is experiencing myriads of problems including the invasion of farms, vandalising of valuable installations including tea harvesting machines and business property, premises, machinery and vehicles, raids and torching of nearby businesses by well-organised criminal gangs incited by politicians.

The tea industry employs about three million in the tea-producing regions, making it one of the largest private-sector employers.

Despite the misconception that the mechanisation of tea picking has led to layoffs, the industry has remained alive to the reality of unemployment in the country.

It is important to note that the tea industry supports over four million Kenyans directly and indirectly. In 2021, the sector earned the country $462 million in foreign exchange.

There are about 45,000 Smallholder farmers selling their tea through estate factories earning about Sh5 billion per annum.

However, mechanisation is a key component of the technology that allows agricultural production to be intensified. Indeed, the mechanisation of tea harvesting was a clarion call by the State for enhancing productivity in the tea estates and for industrialisation and improvement in the agricultural sector.

While mechanisation of tea picking reduces the required labour for tea production operations, it offers other auxiliary business activities, including the sale of machinery, spare parts, repairs and maintenance thereby creating new jobs.

It is also a catalyst for rural development as it increases power to agriculture, largely enhancing the productivity of labour. It also improves the timeliness of agricultural operations, enhances market access, and contributes to mitigating climate-related hazards.

Despite facing numerous challenges, the Kenya tea industry remains a vital pillar of the nation's economy. Mechanisation, often viewed with scepticism, is a necessary step towards modernising the industry, making it more competitive on the global stage.

As the industry navigates the challenges of mechanisation, it is essential to strike a balance between preserving jobs and achieving economic sustainability.

The writer is the chief executive officer at the Kenya Tea Growers Association.

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