Lerionka Tiampati used to work in a bank before he moved to Ketepa, a subsidiary of Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), as CEO in 2001. After four years, he moved to KTDA where he has been for the last 14 years. Not one to talk about himself, he prefers to talk about work, which happens to be tea. He talks about the 650,000 farmers growing tea, how Kenya is the world’s number one black tea exporter, sending out about 96 percent of its production.
JACKSON BIKO met him in his office in the Central Business District. The former occupants seemed to have left behind the government’s protocol and officiousness in the massive office.
You have a microwave in your office, what do you need it for?
(Laughs) Well, sometimes I will warm something in there, like mandazi or a pie. It’s not even mine, when I took over the office it was here. It belonged to the former occupant and I’ve never thought of moving it.
What have you learnt about tea in all these years running this place?
Tea is an interesting conversation for me. Did you know that many years ago the British used to get their tea from China? Then they fell out and the Chinese stopped selling to them so they decided to grow tea in their colonies in Africa, Kenya being one of them. The government put in place some measures to encourage smallholders to grow tea. The first smallholder tea factory started at the foothills of Mount Kenya, in Nyeri. From then on, one factory in 1957, and 20,000 farmers, it’s grow to what it is now. I’m proud of that.
So what have you learnt about leadership?
Leadership is about envisioning. It’s about dreaming. It’s about what can be done and then executing than just trying to achieve the dream. So, if somebody did not dream that smallholders can actually be able to grow tea, and finally even overtake the plantation companies in terms of output, and put something in place, then I would never have happened. There was a vision, there was a direction, and there were leaders who then ensured that they drove the organisation in that direction. KTDA was then a government parastatal because it needed the structure to drive the growth and in 2000, the government handed over this institution to farmers. Now tea factories own it.
What aspect of leading do you struggle with?
The expectations. People have very high expectations. A lot of times, unreasonable expectations. People don’t take time to understand the picture, so, it becomes very difficult to navigate. For example, let’s talk about the tough global situation. How does that affect our business? We export 36 percent of our tea to Pakistan, which is currently having challenges. It has depreciated its currency. What does that mean for the importer from Pakistan if the currency has been depreciated? It means that they cannot afford the import. Either they push the prices down or they slow down on the volumes. Global geopolitical issues affect the tea prices. Not everybody understands what happens out there, and their expectations often is what I struggle with.
What’s your favourite part of the day here?
(Pause) I think really the good thing is when you’re challenged because then you put on your thinking cap and you’re able to come up with innovative solutions.
But you must have a favourite part of the day when you feel that you are enjoying being here, and working …
(Long pause) Interesting. I never even thought about it. (Pause) I think for me it’s a busy office, it’s a public office, you can see my door is open and people walk in, staff walk in, the farmers, directors, everybody. So, the day is busy. So, perhaps at the end of the day when people have already left, I have a bit of time to work through a little late without interaction.
When do you think you’ll say, “OK. I’ve done my part here; I’m going to leave this for someone else to do.”
(Laughs). Well, here we have a retirement age. When that time comes, or when I feel that I have had enough, then I will call it a day.
How long do you have left for that to happen?
(Laughs). It’s like asking a lady for her age. (Laughs). I think if you have things to do, and the people you’re working with feel you have something to offer and you’re not tired, then you do what it is that you’re to do. Then when the time comes to leave, you leave or if you feel you need to leave earlier, that can also happen.
That’s very abstract. Are you afraid that perhaps it will be hard for you to adjust to a different ecosystem once you retire?
I bet everybody really knows at some point he or she has to leave and do something else. So, when the time comes, I think psychologically, you just have to prepare yourself. It’s really not retirement as such, it’s just that you’ve been doing something for so long and maybe it’s time to think about something else. You just turn your attention to other things. Either benefit society or whatever it is that your passion is then you do it.
What’s your biggest passion outside tea?
(Laughs). Outside tea?
If I have to think about it, I’m not even sure what it is. But one of the things that interest me a lot is environment and conservation. I’m involved in an initiative known as ‘The Mau Trust’. These issues interest me because they are about sustainability of the human race and biodiversity. Not just in Kenya, but looking at what’s happening today in the Amazon in Brazil or in the Congo Forest. These are things that set me thinking, is there anything we can do to ensure that the human race understands that their survival is intricately linked to the environment and as we struggle to eke out a living, we should be conscious of the fact that the environment is important? That’s something that I’m keen to be involved in more if time allows.
Are you spiritual or religious?
That’s a tough one! (Pause) I wouldn’t say that I’m born again and things like that. But yes, every human being has got some level of spirituality because you have to understand how you came into being and that there is a higher force than all of us. Yes. So, I do have that spirituality. I believe in a greater being, and I believe in doing good and living by certain values.
What dreams are you currently chasing?
(Laughs). Interesting! (Pause). It’s a difficult one. Is that personal?
I think for me, really in terms of the work space, I am passionate to achieve certain ideals and see smallholder farmers have a very firm foundation.
This is their business which is not only about tea, but the various factories and the value chain. It’s all about seeing the growth of this company not just tea, into a diversified business.
Is your personal dream tied to tea and the work you do here?
I have done what I have to do and I’ll be satisfied to have achieved that because that is a major contribution to my country, to the institution I’ve been working for so many years. After that, I will turn my passion into other things that are important to me.