So dire is the situation that Bomet county is encouraging residents to diversify agriculture.
Poverty, malnutrition are blot on region that grows world’s most taken beverage after water.
Some of them have taken to tea hawking as high production costs continue to suffocate them.
Owing to financial pressure, many are now forced to sell their produce to local brokers.
The green canopy that touches the sky in the horizon hugs the eye and soothes the soul, triggering one of the most beautiful sensations. The bushes stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions, underlining tea’s status as Kenya’s leading cash crop and the Kericho-Bomet belt its capital.
It should be teatime, but there’s no party here. Not for smallholders.
Beneath this picture of paradise, where multinational tea companies make billions, smallholder farmers here in Konoin — home to the highest concentration of tea bushes in Kenya — are reeling under poverty.
High school dropout rates and malnutrition are a blot on a region that produces much of the world’s most widely consumed beverage after water.
“Farmers are unable to provide for their families due to poor prices of green leaf, yet they have put their entire farms under the crop. Here, nearly everyone buys milk, vegetables and maize and they can’t cope given the small land sizes,” Mr Cheruiyot Baliach, a tea grower, tells us.
Smallholder earnings this season sunk to a five-year low, thanks to a cocktail of factors. Some internal and others external — including turmoil in the international market such as the Brexit anxiety in the UK and instability in Sudan and Pakistan.
Even with poor payments by Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) — the farmers are still holding on, hoping for a miracle.
The trouble with farmers, argues researcher Bill Ruto, is that many do not do the math. “Just as traditional pastoralists often pride themselves for the size of the horns of their cows rather than the price the animals will fetch in the market, many farmers are so intimately attached to their tea crop that you can’t do anything to dissuade them from it,” he says.
Some of them have taken to tea hawking as high production costs continue to suffocate them. Owing to financial pressure, many are now forced to sell their produce to local brokers, who pay in cash on delivery under a system dubbed “mong’irito” in the Kipsigis dialect.
Mong’irito — literally pick all you can get as opposed to the two leaves and a bud principle that KTDA enforces strictly — is a product of privateers within the tea chain who have set up factories to take advantage of the poor farmers. Whichever way, their fate is sealed.
Farmers who hawk their tea lose up to 50 per cent of their earnings as they get a one-off pay of Sh24 per kilo compared to KTDA’s average cumulative pay of Sh30 — which is still low.
Those who opt out of the KTDA system also miss the agency’s fertiliser, which it sells to farmers directly at Sh1,800 per 50kg bag.
While global fertiliser prices have been on the dip since 2011, tea farmers have never benefited from the same. Farmers are left to finance the picking, weeding and pruning of tea from their payments besides the 16 per cent VAT levied by the government. These deductions eat into profits, leaving little for the poor farmer.
KTDA levies factories an agency fee of 2.5 per cent and an insurance charge, which are passed on to small-scale farmers. There is also the corporate tax and county permits that have to be paid by the factories even though they were built entirely with contributions from small-scale tea growers.
The poor state of roads often causes delay in collection of the produce from buying centres that cost farmers up to 25 per cent in weight loss.
Reducing land sizes compounds farmers’ woes. With as small as half an acre, farmers put all their plots under tea although it does not make economic sense to plant less than two acres of the cash crop. The result is an oppressive environment whose effects include alcoholism and abject poverty.
So dire is the situation that the county government of Bomet has initiated a programme to encourage residents to diversify their agriculture.
“We are marketing dairy, poultry, avocado and passion farming, which can put more money in farmers’ hands and deal with malnutrition, which is a challenge in most parts of Konoin Sub-county,” Mr Julius Tuwei, the Bomet County Executive in charge of Agriculture, says.
Critics trace tea farmers’ woes to the ubiquitous KTDA, which started as a marketing agency, but which has since morphed into an “all-powerful hydra-headed monster.”