A Dusty Flush
Rains throughout East Africa arrived too soon or they arrived in torrents too late — but mainly they didn’t arrive at all.
By Dan Bolton
Africa currently produces about 15% of the world’s tea despite the fact that most of the continent’s tea-producing regions are still experiencing the aftermath of the worst drought in 60 years. Kenya is the exception, following a year in which the rain-inducing El Nino poured heavy amounts from October to December 2015 boosting tea output in the Central and Rift Valley by more than one third. During the first eight months of 2016 the country harvested 308 million kilos of tea. Kenya is the world’s largest producer of black tea for export, selling 95% of its crop through the Mombasa auction and accounting for most of Africa’s black tea exports. The UK and Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Sudan and Russia purchase most of the cut-tear-curl teas which are grown from C. Assamica stock.
In late summer the La Nina weather conditions abruptly reversed the beneficial gift of rain brought to Africa during the El Nino cycle that ended in September. Two months later, “the tea leaves are becoming dry and falling off,” according to Johnson Irungu, director of crops in the Kenya Agriculture Ministry.
Tea brokers Combrok, Ltd. in Mombasa said that January 2016 recorded the highest monthly crop yield in Kenya’s history “at 50.3 million kilos with February, which is traditionally a low cropping month, also bucking the trend with the highest figure ever recorded for that particular month at 43.9 million kgs.”
The long rainy season that extends from March through May was delayed until late March “but there was still enough precipitation in the ground, coupled with warm temperatures, to sustain good growth,” according to Combrok.
Weather took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2016 with an unusually cold June that resulted in a drop of 970 metric tons compared to the previous May. “Cold weather conditions continued into July & August reducing crop production so much so that most factories reduced their plucking days to 3 – 4 days per week to save costs,” according to Combrok.
The country’s superior research institute is at the forefront of sustainability and mitigating climate change. Kenya since 2011 has developed more than 1,000 clones of which 50 were selected for reliable superior in yield and quality. The best known of its gardens is the Rainforest Alliance certified Kericho tea estates, owned by Unilever (Lipton). The firm employs 12,500 permanent workers and 4,000 seasonal workers and houses up to 65,000 workers and dependents in the company-owned villages. Kenya Tea Packers (Ketepa Pride) owns the top-selling domestic brands with 61 percent market share, according to Euromonitor International.
Most tea in Kenya is grown on small farms, typically smaller than 20 acres (10 hectares). Smallholders produce 60 percent of the nation’s tea. The industry employs 1.3 million of the 47 million people who live there. The per capita income according to the World Bank averages $1,340 a year with 46 percent of the population earning a household wage below the national poverty line. Tea growers generally earn more per year than the average farm worker but without processing capabilities a steep decline in prices can quickly erase gains. Forty-two percent of the population is under 15 years of age with only 3 percent 65 years of age and older, according to Country Meters, a statistical website. Life expectancy is estimated at 61.5 years compared to the global average of 71 years. Literacy for those 15 and older is estimated at 78%. The population of Kenya has doubled since 1990.
Exports earned the country $1.25 billion in 2015. Government officials optimistically predicted 500 million kilos would be sold in 2016, an estimate likely to be missed due to a shortfall caused by inconsistent rainfall.
Uganda – 58.3 million kilos
East Africa’s second largest producer of tea experienced a bountiful harvest in 2015 but farm gate prices for the cut-tea-curl black teas nosedived this year. Uganda has about 500,000 acres (200,000 ha) of land suitable for growing tea but has planted only about 15 percent (76,000 acres). The country exports 95 percent of its tea which is actioned in Mombasa as filler, bringing as little as 8-cents per kilo. Globally tea sells for an average $2.50 to $2.65 per kilo. Sudan is a big customer but unrest in that region depressed sales in 2016.
Uganda’s biggest tea producers are all located in the Western portion of the country near Kabarole and Kyenjojo where the largest gardens are managed by McLeod Russel, Rwenzori Commodities, the Toro & Mityana tea company (TAMTECO) and the Mpanga Tea growers. Gardens there are served by three large factories in Kijura, Mabale, and Rusekere. The teas are not profitable enough to justify the expense of irrigation systems making yield entirely dependent on natural rainfall.
The sector employs 60,000 workers and is an indirect source of income for 500,000 Ugandans. The population of the country is 40 million with 50 percent under 15 years and 2 percent older than 65. Life expectancy is 58 years, according to Country Meters, a statistical website. Literacy is 74 percent and average per capita earnings are $670 per year with only 20 percent of the populating living below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank. In 1992 the poverty headcount was 56.4 percent. The population of Uganda has doubled since 1994.
Uganda first began growing tea for commercial use in the late 1920s on gardens planted by Brooke Bond. The industry nearly disappeared during a period of civil upheaval during the 1970s but has since rebounded. Smallholders are growing in number with a collective 18,000 acres under tea and marketing through the Uganda Tea Growers Corp. Currently about 20% of the tea grown in Uganda is from smallholders.
Malawi – 39 million kilos
Alexander Cathcart Kay at Satemwa Tea Estate in Malawi reports that “following a record dry spell the Chiperoni rains, which are expected from June through August completely failed.” He said that record hot temperatures followed from October through November with only some scattered thunder showers being received during this period.
“This led to a very short crop with most factories ending up 15-20% down on average. The long hot dry spells experienced once the rains had started also interfered with the ongoing replanting program, with many deaths of young plants and some estates delaying their programs to this coming season. The hot sunny days during the main season resulted in factories making bright well-made teas, more orange in the cup than the usual redness associated with Malawi teas. The reasonable prices for main grades along with cheaper fuel, energy and fertilizer costs helped to make up for the poor agricultural season.”
Kay said “the outlook for the coming season is still uncertain with a low water table prevailing, although better Chiperoni rains have been received and we are said to be moving into a La Nina cycle during which Southern Malawi should receive higher rainfall more conducive to good tea growing conditions.”
Malawi is desperately poor with 51 percent living below the national poverty line and a per capita income of $350 per year, down from $480 per capita five years ago, according to the World Bank. The country’s population is 18 million of which 45 percent are under 15 years and 2.7 percent are 65 and older. The population has doubled since 1989. Life expectancy is 63 years. Literacy overall is 65 percent but literacy among those under 15 years is climbing and now at 75 percent, according to Country Meters, a statistical website.
Tanzania – 36.2 million kilos
In the 1990s the government of Tanzania initiated a public-private program to bring new capital, technology and management techniques into the then public companies.
“This came as proponents of nationalization woke up to the sad reality that at best, state-run companies had become parasites, endlessly sucking the treasury in subsidies and bailouts,” writes Samuel Kamndaya, a journalist writing for All Africa in May 2016. “There was hope, at first – for a bright future for the newly-privatized firms. But no sooner had they started fully operating than trouble checked in. In some cases, the process was mired by accusations and counter-accusations flying between investors, members of the community and politicians.”
Two decades after liberalization Chai Bora (Swahili for great tea) is an example of a tea company that successfully made the transition and is expanding into new markets. The brand was acquired from the Tanzania Tea Packers (TATEPA) in 2008 and eventually sold to a private equity fund that built the company into an $11 million per year venture (considered a large company in Tanzania).
Euromonitor International considers Tanzania one of the 20 Markets of the Future. “The country is one of the fastest growing and most promising economies in sub-Saharan Africa,” writes Euromonitor: “Three quarters of Tanzanians still live in rural zones but by 2020 urban habitants will account for 31 percent of the total population.”
In May the Tea Board of Tanzania via the Directorate of Promotion, Monitoring and Evaluation, presented an official report to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) expressing the country’s intent to increase the area planted in tea to 25,000 hectares by 2022 with a target of producing 50,000 metric tons annually. The immediate goal is to “double tea production at some estates in the Southern Highlands,” according to the report.
Two thirds (68 percent) of the country’s tea is grown on estates (24.5 million kilos) compared to leaf grown by smallholders (11.7 million kilos). Exports account for 85 percent of total production, most of which is CTC, generally considered low to medium grade. The rains were more than adequate in 2015 and early 2016 resulting in an 8.9 percent increase earning $47.8 million in tea exports, up from $46 million in 2014 despite weaker prices. Exports totaled 29.5 million kilos in 2015. About 5.6 metric tons were transported to Kenya and sold through the Mombasa Auction where prices fell from an average $1.64 per kilo to $1.57 per kilo. Blended and packed tea amounted to 5.5 million kilos.
The most productive region is Mufindi which produced 14.9 million kilos. The Katumba factory processed 5 million kilos in 2015 and was closely trailed by Kibwele at 4.9 million kgs with Itona and Lugoda at 4 million kilos. The top 11 factories account for 92 percent of processed tea.
Tanzania is relatively affluent compared to nearby countries. The World Bank reports 28.2 percent of the 54 million people there live below the national poverty line. Per capita income is $950 per year. An estimated 42 percent are under 15 years with 3 percent aged 65 and older. Life expectancy is 53 years, according to Country Meters, a statistical website. Literacy overall is 80 percent with literacy among those under 15 years estimated at 87 percent. The population of Tanzania has doubled since 1993.
Rwanda – 25.2 million kilos
Tea is Rwanda’s largest source of export dollars and while most of its production is commodity black tea there are now a handful of specialty tea estates producing award-winning artisan tea for export.
Sorwathe Tea Estate, located in Kinihira, was the first tea factory in Rwanda to manufacture specialty green and certified organic teas. The factory was built at 5,000 feet on drained swamplands in the northern part of the country by Joe Wertheim, founder of US-based Tea Importers, Inc. The facility opened in 1978 and is now the largest tea processor in the country, accounting for 15 percent of Rwanda’s tea.
The Kitabe Tea Factory in Kintobo village in the Nyamagabe District, produces Rwanda Mountain Tea and supplies Taylor’s of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea). The British company recently gave smallholders 1.3 million seedlings and installed safe water facilities to meet the needs of 350 families.
“Kitabi is a remarkable region for us; its tea has a unique aroma and taste and is among world’s most popular tea,” said Ian Brabbin, head of tea at Taylor’s. “Our collaboration has to go beyond tea and extend to partnership in promoting farmers development like providing water facilities among others,” he said.
Tea was first planted in Rwanda in 1952 on hillsides at altitudes of 6,200 to 8,200 feet. The Mulindi factory was constructed in 1960. There are now 14 tea factories producing CTC grades. Production has climbed steadily from 1,990 metric tons in 1990 to 2,500 metric tons in 2015. Three quarters of the tea is grown above 5,400 feet where there are few pests and the volcanic soil is richly organic with little need for fertilizer. Rainfall averages 2 meters per year. Approximately 97 percent of the tea is exported with 60 percent traded at auction and 37 percent sold direct, according to the National Agricultural Export Development Board.
Privatization began in 2004 with the tea factory at Pfunda and was completed by 2014 with the creation of Rwanda Mountain Tea and the conversion of the Karongi and Muganza factories. Award-winning gardens include Gisovu Tea Estate and Kitabi in southwest Rwanda.
Workers belong to 19 co-operatives serving 42,000 smallholders. Since 2011 the government has provided 15 million cuttings with a goal of increasing production to 42,000 metric tons per year. Lands under tea are expected to increase to 45,000 acres (18,000 ha).
Rwanda’s 12 million people earn an average $700 per person per year, according to the World Bank. The country’s population is 18 million with 43 percent under 15 years of age with 2.4 percent aged 65 and older. Life expectancy is 58 years, according to Country Meters, a statistical website. Literacy overall is 70 percent but literacy among those under 15 years is 80 percent indicating a significant investment in education the country’s young people. The population has doubled since 1995.
Rwanda encourages tea tourism. Sorwathe has a 10-room guest house on its grounds with lovely hilltop views and tea factory tours. The spectacular Nyungwe Forest National Park, known for its troupes of Colobus monkeys, borders Gisovu estate where day tours and accommodations are available with daily cuppings. The Gisakura estate is on the western fringes of the Nyungwe park which sits at 7,500 feet at the headwaters of the Nile. The garden features tours and tastings with accommodations nearby.
Zimbabwe – 15 million kilos
Zimbabwe has vast tracts of suitable land and the undeveloped potential to produce 25,000 metric tons of tea annually, according to a Manicaland Investment Profile commissioned by the government. The country is located on a high tropical plateau which contributes to lower temperatures. The rainy season extends from November to March but most of the country is too arid for tea growing except the eastern border in Manicaland Province. The two biggest cities, Harare and Bulawayo, are currently rationing water as reservoirs are at historic lows.
Three tea companies produced 15,000 metric tons last year of which 12,000 tons was exported. The teas are largely black CTC in low to medium grades. Most of the tea is exported to the United Kingdom for blending. The Tanganda Tea Company, Eastern Highlands Plantation, and Arda Katioyo Tea Company operate the largest factories and buy leaf from thousands of smallholders in the Nyanga, Chipinge and Mutasa regions. Tanganda alone has 2,000 tea smallholders, according to the newspaper All Africa. The Tanganda company’s finance director estimates growers could collectively increase the size of their plantations by 7,400 acres (3,000 ha). Nationwide the acreage under tea could expand by 66 percent.
Tea was first planted in Zimbabwe in 1924 near Chipinge in the eastern highlands. People there drink tea several times a day in the British tradition choosing locally-produced Tanganda, a popular brand throughout central Africa.
Zimbabwe’s per capita income is $850 per year, up from $300 in 2008, according to the World Bank. There are 15.7 million residents in Zimbabwe where 42 percent are under 15 years of age and 3.8 percent are aged 65 and older. In 2011 72 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line. Life expectancy is 49.6 years, according to Country Meters, a statistical website. Literacy overall is 86 percent with literacy among those under 15 years estimated at 92 percent (89% for boys and 94% for girls). The population has doubled since 1982.
Burundi – 11 million kilos
Revenue from tea is vital to the economy as coffee and tea are Burundi’s biggest source of foreign currency. The tea industry employs 300,000 smallholders. Tea was introduced in 1931 at the Gisozi research station but did not gain importance until commercial gardens were planted in Teza in 1963 and Rwegura in 1966. Smallholders began growing tea in the 1970s largely at the urging of the Agence Française Développement (AFD).
Burundi sells 80 percent of its tea through the Kenyan tea auction at Mombasa. Production is largely CTC in medium to high grades. Very little of the crop is certified which limits export partners. The state owned tea board Office du Thé du Burundi (OTB) reported exports increased 52 percent in 2015 due to a fall in output in Kenya. The drought reduced competition in the market and increased prices, according to the board. Volumes were up 6.6 percent in 2015 earning $32.4 million on exports of 10,495 metric tons.
The urban population is quite small with 90 percent of the population dependent on agriculture to make a living. The annual income of Burundi’s residents averages $260 per year, according to the World Bank. The country’s population is 11 million with 46 percent under 15 years and 2.5 percent aged 65 and older. An estimated 65 percent have earnings below the national poverty line. Life expectancy is 58.8 years, according to Country Meters, a statistical website. Literacy overall is 86 percent. Literacy among those less than 15 years is 88 percent. The population has doubled since 1991.
Burundi has the soil and climatic conditions to produce high quality and specialty teas. There is significant potential for differentiation and value addition. Direct sales outside the auction channel could lead to greater global recognition and more rewarding prices for growers.