Kenya tea producers turn over a new leaf as prices stumble
NYERI, Dec 31: In a humming factory in Kenya's highlands, tea is hand-plucked from the fields, cured and shredded into the fine leaves that have sated drinkers from London to Lahore for generations.
But Kenya's prized black tea isn't fetching the prices it once did, forcing the top supplier of the world's most popular drink to try something new.
In the bucolic hills around Nyeri, factory workers are experimenting with a range of boutique teas, deviating from decades of tradition in the quest for new customers and a buffer against unstable prices.
Like the bulk of Kenya's producers, they've been manufacturing one way for decades -- the crush, tear and curl method, turning out ultra-fine leaves well suited for teabags the world over.
Now however, between conveyor belts whizzing tonnes of Kenya's mainstay CTC into heaving sacks, huge rollers also gently and slowly massage green leaves under the watchful eye of workers, all freshly trained in the art of what is known as orthodox tea production.
The end result -- a whole leaf, slow-processed variety, savoured for its complex tones and appearance -- is still being perfected at Gitugi, a factory in the foothills of the Aberdare Range that has been trialling these teas since June.
It has been costly shifting into orthodox, and a cultural change for workers and farmers, said Antony Naftali, operations manager at Gitugi, in Nyeri some 85 kilometres (52 miles) north of Nairobi.
But the risk was necessary: prices for stalwart CTC at auction nosedived 21 per cent in 2018-2019 compared to the prior financial year, underscoring the urgency to diversify and extract more from every tea bush.
"We have relied for so many years on traditional CTC. But the price has dropped. We want to reduce the pressure... but also, to explore this new market," Naftali told AFP.
Even since prices have recovered somewhat, any fluctuations are still keenly felt in Kenya, the world's biggest exporter of CTC.
Tea is a staple drink in Kenya, though, unlike other major producing countries, it consumes far less than it exports.
The humble cuppa is a pillar of the economy: one in 10 Kenyans depends on the tea industry, according to the Kenya Tea Development Agency, which represents 650,000 smallholder farmers by selling and marketing their tea.
The poor returns this year sparked angry protests on estates, and tea companies registered losses.
Part of the problem is oversupply.
Higher prices in recent years spurred investment in tea planting, resulting in Kenya's best-ever haul in 2018 -- at 493 million kilos (1,086 pounds).
But Kenya also has long relied on too few buyers, shipping 70 per cent of its tea to just four markets. Its top three customers -- Pakistan, Egypt and Britain -- have all seen a weakening of their currencies in recent times, making tea imports pricey.
Other big buyers -- Iran, Sudan and Yemen, chief among them -- have struggled to make payments. -AFP