Kenya's tea industry: secrets of organization and route to Russian market

Kenya's tea industry: secrets of organization and route to Russian market

20.09.2018

Kenya is among the world leaders in tea production, although the first tea plantations were laid there only at the beginning of the 20th century. Albeit young, Kenyan tea quickly gained popularity abroad and became a pillar of the national export. Today, it is being grown and harvested, just as a hundred years ago – manually and without any chemicals, which ensures an exceptional quality of the product.

Located in East Africa, Kenya is justly considered to be one of the most beautiful countries in the African continent. This is a land of contrasts: it combines snowy mountain peaks and the azure ocean, dormant volcanoes and soda lakes with flamingos nesting along the shores, equatorial tropics and savannas full of wildlife. The unique nature and climate conditions are ideal for cultivating a whole range of crops: wheat, corn, sugar cane, potatoes, coffee, bananas and even flowers (about 35% of all roses for the European market are from Kenya).

Tea from Kenya

Tea cultivation is a major part of the national economy. According to the Tea Directorate under the Agriculture and Food Authority of Kenya, in 2017 the country produced nearly 440 thousand tons of tea (larger amounts are only produced by India and China), about 92% of which was exported. Interestingly, Russia is among the five largest consumers of Kenyan tea, along with traditional “tea countries”, such as the UK, Pakistan and Egypt.

Tea trees in Kenya are grown in the highlands at the height of 1,500–2,700 meters above the sea level, to the east and west of the Great Rift Valley. Tea plantations are mostly concentrated in such regions, as Kericho (height – 2,090 m), Nandi (2,040 m), Meru (1,530 m), Nyeri (1,750 m), Nyamira (1,890 m), Kisii (1,850 m), and others. The proximity to the equator provides a lot of sunlight for crops, abundant rains ensure high humidity, and red volcanic soil contains necessary mineral elements. Farmers do not use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides in tea growing. This is the reason why Kenyan tea is valued as an ecologically clean product. Tea gardens in Kenya adjoin flower groves and fruit orchards, as well as spice plantations. Tea leaves absorb fragrances of blossoming gardens and flowers, and later this can delight and amaze those who prefer natural tea.

Varieties of black tea numbering more than fifty make over 95% of tea produced in the country. Small private farms grow to order green tea, white tea, yellow tea, Oolong, and even purple tea – this is a rare variety containing more antioxidants than any other tea, it grows only in the Mount Kenya region (more information about Kenyan tea varieties can be found here). Tea experts emphasize that Kenyan black tea features a special taste. It is intense, strong and astringent, with a fine fragrance and a beautiful honey-amber infusion. Interestingly, locals prefer combining its bright taste with other products: Kenyans make the tea with a large amount of milk, sugar and spices (cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg).

When it is hot, Kenyans quench thirst drinking cold tea with a little bit of fresh ginger root.

Manual labor

A large number of locals are employed in the Kenyan tea industry. Nearly 60% of this product is grown and harvested by small private farms manually, using traditional methods. Each tea picker daily harvests about 15 kilograms of tea into special bamboo baskets. Each tea tree is plucked every two – three weeks. Tea trees in Kenya are grown differently as compared to Japan, China or Sri Lanka. There are no passes between tea trees growing literally just like wheat – the entire area is planted with tea trees, and tea pickers have to make their way through them. Mechanical harvesting widely used in India and China cannot ensure a proper quality. Only the upper tender leaves should be picked, and not the coarse twigs and the wiry bottom leaves that are often plucked by machines.

According to Head of Kenya's Tea Directorate Samuel Ogola, there are about 600 thousand independent small farms in the country. Their activities are coordinated by Kenya Tea Development Agency Holdings (KTDA): in particular, it controls timely payments to farmers from factories purchasing tea leaf from private farms. Freshly harvested tea leaf is purchased at fixed prices, and then processed using the CTC (cut, tear, curl) technology designed in the 1930s. The process includes tea leaf withering, crushing and fermenting, followed by rolling and drying. The final stage – sieving – involves sorting the tea leaves by size and grade. Then, the product is delivered at the tea auction where wholesale buyers offer their prices for each lot.

From tree to cup

Black tea grown for export is delivered from all over Kenya into the chief port in Mombasa located on the coast of the Indian Ocean. This noisy multinational metropolis is a strategic hub along the sea route from Europe to China, India, and the Middle East. Today, all commodities exported from Kenya are delivered to this port: local auctions sell tea, coffee, leather and cotton. Unlike coffee, tea is not an exchange commodity, and there can be no futures contracts for tea. It cannot be stored for as long as coffee beans, while a vast variety of teas makes it difficult to standardize tea futures. Since tea in Kenya is grown all year round, the auction is held on a weekly basis. Every producer sends product samples to special tea brokers who put them onto catalogs sent in advance to wholesale buyers. The latter taste the tea and assess the quality of each lot. In the course of an auction session, they set a price they consider fair for a particular lot. On average, 90–120 bags with tea are sold during two days of the auction. Today, the amount of tea passing through Mombasa is three times more than twenty years ago.

Major national tea producers take part in the auction: Kenya Tea Development Agency, Unilever, George Williamson, Eastern Produce, James Finlay, etc. Not only Kenyan tea is sold here, but also tea from Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and other African countries. Buyers should be very attentive not to miss the opportunity. During a day, prices are set for 60–80 lots, which is why a presenter rapidly reads out details on each of them. However, this tradition may soon become a thing of the past: the Kenyan authorities are going to automate the auction by the end of 2018. Green, purple and other teas are not transported to Mombasa – prices for deals with those teas are set directly between a buyer and a seller. From the auction, the tea is transported to tea packing factories (generally, outside Kenya) where it is prepacked into small boxes, packaged, and shipped to distributors. Prepacked tea under various brands is delivered to supermarkets, online store warehouses and to specialized tea boutiques and shops, cafés and restaurants.

Route to Russia

Russia with its long-standing tea culture is a strategically important market for Kenyan producers. Only in June 2018, Kenya shipped nearly 2 thousand tons of black tea into our country (and about 20 thousand tons in 2016). “Most famous brands of Kenyan tea in Russia are 'Princess  Nury. Kenyan', 'May. Black Diamond', Maitre KENIKA, Maitre de The 'Kenya', Richard Royal 'Kenya', and Greenfield Kenyan Sunrise,” cites Samuel Ogola. According to a study carried out by NeoAnalytics in 2017, nearly 95% of Russian residents are tea consumers. Russian buyers still prefer loose bagged black tea. At the same time, there is an increasing demand in the premium segment and in alternative areas – herbal and fruit teas, blends and exotic varieties.

According to the Agriculture and Food Authority of Kenya, the country is going to double tea export to the Russian market in the nearest future. Therefore, Russians will get more opportunities to appreciate the unique taste of this fragrant and healthy drink.

Vadim Bykov, tea expert, senior tea tester at Sovremennye Chainye Tekhnologii (Modern Tea Technologies) LLC, about Kenya and Kenyan tea:

“There is a map of the Kenyan tea regions and plantations hanging behind me in my work room for over 15 years. That map and the first pre-auction samples of Kenyan tea together with samples of traditional packed tea sold in Kenya (one pack contained crushed black tea and pepper!) were presented to me back in the 1990s by the then Ambassador of Kenya to Russia. I remember that during our talk he was upset about the fact that multiple offers from the Kenyan party for Kenyan tea supply to Russia did not arouse any interest in the state agencies of our country. But when companies got interested in high-quality products from Kenya, the situation changed. 

In late 1990s, I had the luck to taste a high-quality Kenyan plantation tea. Therefore, I suggested using the rare large-leaf black tea and crushed plantation teas (PF and PD grades) in creation of tea collections for the Maitre and KENIKA brands. Those are CTC teas from the best plantations in Kenya. They were being selected for a whole calendar year from among multiple pre-auction samples from the tea auction in Mombasa with over a hundred of plantations. I would like to note that compared to teas from other tea regions of the world the Kenyan large-leaf tea boasts a lot of advantages, including a combination of super intense infusion and soft taste. According to laboratory test findings, Kenyan tea leaves contain two times more sap of tea tree leaves than teas from other parts of the world, which increases the amount of solubles in tea infusion.

The Kenyan CTC tea produced using the traditional CTC technology features a unique characteristic – both dried tea and tea infusion are aromatic. Besides, the tea fragrance can be extremely bright and fine, complex and rich in floral and spicy notes. The large-leaf tea production process at tea factories in Kenya has some specifics. Therefore, it can be manufactured by a relatively small number of tea factories. And we cooperate with such producers, offering various large-leaf teas in the Russian market, as well as mixed teas KENIKA comprising CTC teas from plantations located at the heights of 1,850, 2,000, 2,250, 2,400 and 2,550 meters above the sea level that have their own distinctive nuances of flavor. Our company has been successfully doing business in Russia for many years, we value our reputation and are very careful selecting our suppliers. Our mission is to favor the development of the tea industry in Russia in general and to promote a more conscious culture of tea consumption among Russian buyers. 

Sergey Dobry, Director General at WEISERHOUSE: 

“We have recently been in a tea expedition in Kenya. It was organized to visit tea plantations and the Ngorongo Tea Factory. We considered that factory as a new potential partner. During the excursion at the factory, we were able to see the whole CTC tea production process. Today, CTC tea is the basis of Kenyan tea production.

The process of production of this tea at the early stage is standard. Everything is done in the old fashion: leaf harvesting and withering are simple and trivial, except for picturesque bags with holes used to transport freshly picked tea leaf to the place of ageing. Later stages are most interesting. Rollers are not used here. Instead, there are huge grinders processing withered tea leaf. At the end of this process, there is a mush composed of ground tea leaf, twigs and stems. Then, this 'tea mush' goes along the conveyor to the place of fermentation. Fermentation is performed on a long metal rack with holes in the bottom through which warm air is supplied to the tea. After 25-40 minutes, the darkened tea is forwarded to drying ovens.

In my opinion, the ovens feature a unique mechanism. The tea first dries there and then it granulates! How does this happen? It turns out to be quite simple. In the second oven chamber, the tea is suspended owing to hot air supply from below. And moist steam is supplied from above – it sticks together small tea particles into conglomerations resembling granules. Then, the finished product is transported to special vulcanite rollers in order to detach ready granules from small tea villi (dry tea leaf strings) using electrization. After that, the tea is graded and packed into bags to be supplied to buyers.

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