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Board cools tea fears

NAIROBI, September 29 – The Tea Board of Kenya has downplayed the uprooting of tea bushes by farmers in Central and Western Kenya saying it has not affected the industry’s profitability.

Tea Board Managing Director Sicily Kariuki said Monday that they were not alarmed as the uprooting was not being done en masse.

“That is news coming to us today because as late as Friday, there is no cause for concern. However it is our job to get out and investigate and we will take appropriate action depending on the seriousness of the matter,” she said in reaction to reports that more farmers were uprooting acreages of the crop due to poor returns.

The farmers were citing the high cost of production and the meagre returns they were making from the crop as the main reasons for cutting down the bushes.  Apart from the high production expenses, they also meet cess, labour and transportation costs.

Mrs Kariuki disclosed that a team would soon be dispatched to areas where uprooting is being carried out to assess the situation on the ground and recommend the way forward.

“In the event that we go out and find that there is massive uprooting, we are going to deal with the matter as stipulated in the Tea Act,” she disclosed. The action to be taken, she added would be guided by the Act, which prohibits the digging up of the crop without authority.  There are also other proposed penalties contained in the Tea Taskforce report,” she said.

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However, she said that reason would prevail as they cannot force farmers to stop destroying their tea so as to start other economically viable ventures.

“We recognise that it is rational for a tea farmer to want to be supported to move to what is making more economic sense. So we cannot enslave them to that. The only leeway we have is to try and talk to them because it would destabilise everything else,” she said.

She explained that the situation called for the amendment of the Tea Act to assist the farmers exit from tea farming. The draft Bill, she added would be presented to the Agriculture Ministry by December and hoped that it would be discussed to ensure that the industry was not adversely affected.

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Mrs Kariuki spoke during a media briefing where she reported that tea production in August improved by seven percent to 24.4 million kilograms over the same period in 2007 owing to the end of the cold weather.

Cumulatively however the amount of tea produced between January to August 2008 registered a drop of 16 percent to stand at 206 million kg compared to 244 million kg recorded over the same period last year. The low production for the period was due to depressed rainfall in most parts of the country during the first half of 2008.

However, the MD predicted that the industry would record increased production in the fourth quarter of 2008 going by the favourable weather projections given by the Meteorological Department. But she cautioned that the country was not likely to reach the 2007 figures of 369 million kg. There would be a shortfall of about nine to 10 percent to 335 million kilos by the end 2008, she added.

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“From where we stand now, we are looking at improved production for September and we should be able to release those statistics once they have been received by the office. We can however say with certainty that production for September has been more impressive than August,” she said.

On exports, 14.7 million kg of tea was sold at the Mombasa auction in August 2008 and fetched Sh200 ($2.75) per kilo compared to August 2007 when a kilo of tea fetched Sh127 ($1.75). The price (Sh200), which was the highest value recorded in 15 years, was as a result of the lower quantity of tea offered for sale. The collective amount of tea sold was 161million kg compared to 202 million kg auctioned during the same period in 2007.

“We see a reversal in the average prices at the auction. For the period between January and August, the prices have been pleasantly high at an average of $2.42 per kg against $1.72 registered in the same period in 2007,” she said.

As for tea exports, Egypt overtook Pakistan as the lead market for Kenyan tea having bought 10.2 million kg in August this year compared to 4.5 million kg recorded during the same period in 2007. Pakistan imported 7.3 million kg, while the UK, Afghanistan and Sudan bought 7.1 million kg, 2.5 million kg and 2.4 million kg respectively.

Locally however, consumption remained unchanged at five percent of the total tea production, a situation that has been blamed on competition from other beverages. This has prompted the Tea Board to launch campaigns such as the ‘Tea Week’ to promote domestic consumption through creating awareness of tea as a health beverage. The promotions, she revealed would cost approximately Sh120 million.

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