Reforms needed for vibrant tea sector

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The transformation of defunct parastatal, Kenya Tea development Authority, to Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) in 2000 and consequent liberalisation of the tea sub-sector, was to enable farmers reap maximum benefits from the crop.

Part of the reforms included a significant reduction of Government shareholding, much of which was transferred to farmers, to enable the organisation effectively fulfil its mandate of assisting small-holder growers process and market their crop.

Whereas the agency has significantly fulfilled part of its mandate, a lot needs to be done for small-scale farmers to see real and tangible benefits from tea.

Last year, some disillusioned farmers, particularly in Central Province, uprooted some of their crop, citing poor returns.

Their disappointment reminded one of similar acts of tea farmers in the Greater Gusii region in the ’80s, who after the defunct Authority paid them what they considered peanuts in form of bonuses, uprooted some tea bushes and replaced them with food crops that fetched more money at the time.

Although there have been improvements in the manner KTDA is managing the small-scale tea sector, through processing factories, stakeholders say a number of shortcomings have denied farmers full benefits.

One issue raised by Kenya Union of Small-Scale Tea Owners is the high number of directors on the KTDA board.

The union wants the number reduced from 12 to six and those representing farmers at factory level to three.

The union says the cost of maintaining the directors was too high. However, the issue is just one among many problems bedevilling the sub-sector.

The industry plays a very important role, contributing about 26 per cent of the foreign exchange earnings and supports more than three million people.

Tea, like other traditional exports, has seen declining world prices. Prudent and at times painful measures must be taken to protect the industry and also benefit the farmer. Growers should be king and should be made to feel so through an enabling environment.

Painful decisions

Other challenges to be addressed include poor governance and lack of a comprehensive legal framework to guide formulation of consistent policies. Another is institutional failure due to lack of capacity by the private sector to take over functions previously performed by the State after liberalisation.

A shrinking market and weak global marketing networks have also impacted negatively on the sector as well as other agricultural commodity-related products.

Also, poor access to farm credit, high cost of inputs, insecurity in parts of the country, and taxation of farmers through the local authority cess and other levies have also undermined and discouraged farmers.

Further, low level public funding and inefficient use of public resources have resulted in inadequate and inefficient infrastructure, leading to high cost of production.

It is for this reason that Government must come up with adequate and comprehensive reform measures to redefine and, if where necessary, strengthen KTDA’s mandate and capacity.

This way the agency will meaningfully serve the small-scale tea grower.

Since tea growing is a rural enterprise, performance of the industry has a direct impact on employment and poverty reduction given that 70 per cent of the population lives in the rural areas. Besides, the smallholder sub-sector contributes to 62 per cent of the total tea under production.

It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture to spearhead reforms to ensure this sector remains vibrant.

Kenya’s main competitors in the world market, Sri Lanka and India, have taken measures to circumvent these challenges by enhancing their exports through value addition and product differentiation unlike Kenya, which continues to market the product in bulk.

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