In this first blog of a series on our trip to Kenya I will look at the challenges of sourcing tea in this amazing country and the potential routes we can now take having visited and made lasting connections.
Before we start I think it is important to understand the tea industry in Kenya. This is different from any other country we have visited, and unpicking the exact nature of it was key before we even thought about sourcing our first Kenyan tea.
Firstly - some history - Tea was not introduced to Kenya until 1903, when GWL Caine planted bushes near Limuru in the Kiambu District - the purpose of this planting was purely ornamental - at this time the potential to commercially cultivate tea in Africa was overlooked. Just a year later Scot, Arnold Butler McDonell, purchased 350 acres from the British government near Nairobi and over the next ten years tried his hand at farming coffee, flax and corn - all of which failed at the altitude. Following a visit from an Indian friend [with a gift of Camellia Sinensis Assamica seedlings] he planted 20 acres in 1918. It thrived and by 1926 he had become the first commercial tea producer in the history of Africa. Commercial production in Kenya started to see real scale in 1924 through Brooke Bond, who were later to become the biggest tea company in the world.
Today, Kenya is the third biggest producer of tea in the world (after India and China), but it is the largest exporter of tea. Around 95% of each yearly crop is exported - although tea is also very much enjoyed by Kenyans at home as part of daily life [albeit boiled with milk and lots of sugar]. Most of this tea is what is called CTC tea. This stands for Crush, Tear, Curl and is indicative of the process used to make the very small particle tea which is mostly used as part of the blend in breakfast style teabags. At Comins we deal in higher quality whole leaf orthodox teas [* see footnote at bottom of page]. These teas are hand picked and processed using traditional methods. At the moment the Kenyan Tea Directorate informed me that there are only five factories producing orthodox tea in Kenya. Meeting and forming partnerships with the people involved in the renewed focus on Orthodox teas in Kenya was the purpose of our trip this year.
Image : Orthodox and CTC Teas
How does the Kenyan Tea Market Currently Work? Within Kenya around 60% of the tea is produced by small scale farmers who sell their freshly picked green leaf to a body called the Kenyan Tea Development Agency (KTDA). The KDTA has 68 tea factories, where the tea is processed and then mostly sold through the auctions in Mombassa [pictured below - ref], although some is sold directly. Up until the last few years these factories were 100% CTC producers, but now there are three orthodox factories.
The remaining 40% is produced by large, privately owned farms, which sell through the Mombassa auction. Unilever, Finlay, Eastern Kenyan Produce and Williamson are examples of such companies. Again, this is on the whole CTC production, with various speciality orthodox teas being produced on order.
There are a small number of independent producers who form a very small sub sector. These are gardens and farms with their own tea factory, mostly producing CTC, with again only a couple making orthodox tea.
For us as tea merchants focussed on quality, provenance and the celebration of single garden teas this growth in Orthodox production and independent producers represents an exciting time in Kenyan tea, with many more developments than I have written here. This however does sit against a backdrop of an industry which needs change. The industry itself faces growing labour and production costs and stagnating auction prices are making CTC production less attractive. For people working in tea our last blog shared views around the voice that they have in the value chain and how direct partnerships could offer a more positive future.
Image : Talking Tea with the General
So why do we all love Kenyan Tea so much? In reality very few people preparing their tea using blended and branded teabags every day will know where their tea comes from, [commercial companies rarely state the provenance of tea on their packaging] but if the Kenyan tea was taken out tea drinkers would really taste the difference. Kenya's tea growing regions are known for their rich red soils and ideal climatic conditions producing distinctive teas valued for their strong flavour, aroma and bright liquor colour [although like many tea producing areas climate change is already having a negative impact on the lives of tea farmers in Africa]. Many in the black tea world consider Kenyan black teas to be superior in quality to other similar style teas around the world - a quality that ensures that when these teas are combined with cheaper teas in blends commercial companies reduce the cost per teabag but maintain good flavour and colour. Going beyond colour and flavour - according to the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK) the tea from this beautiful country has higher antioxidant levels than teas from other parts of the world. They also state that this is one of the reasons why no pesticides are used on Kenyan tea. Polythenols (a division of antioxidants) are bitter in taste and therefore insects stay away.
From this story so far you can already start to see a difference in this countries relationship with and heritage in tea from say countries like China or Japan. We don't tend to get asked about Kenyan tea by name in the same way we do teas from these countries or even in the same way as we do teas from say India or Sri Lanka. This is mostly because it is hidden away in tea bags and not widely available in high quality, single garden orthodox offerings. Michelle and I believe it's time to change this and that there are some undiscovered beauties out there. Wonderful teas can originate from right across the tea world - it is just about finding passionate people with the right approach and expertise to match - put these together with the rich soils [we are a bit obsessed with soil here] of Kenya and we should have all the ingredients for a fine cup of tea.
Image : Getting passionate about the leaf with the general
So hopefully by now a picture is building. Before we visited Kenya we were a little fearful we may not find the type of tea we were looking for. Thankfully, the good contacts we had developed before our trip and their kindness in sharing their contacts and helping us plan our travels meant we had nothing to fear. Our personal feeling is that high quality Kenyan tea can and should be enjoyed unblended, in its full glory, so that its beautiful flavour and quality can shine.
Image : Wonderful Nick : My guide for the week [Thanks Nick!]
At this point a quick mention of our way of sourcing tea. Our aim as tea merchants is to visit countries of origin, understand the history of tea, the current environment, hopes, fears, opportunities, make connections, build long term partnerships with farmers who share our values and then work together to bring great tea with a great story to our customers. It's not easy. But neither should it be. People all over the world work so hard everyday to produce great tea - the least we can do is travel to see them.
So what did we find on this trip? Our trip to Kenya has created a variety of routes to great Kenyan Orthodox tea which we thought would be interesting to share with you. When looking at who to buy from we are guided by a multitude of factors. Before even visiting a potential partner we are asking questions about the set-up both in terms of people [e.g. number of people involved, how those doing the hard work of cultivation and plucking are linked to production, sales and pay] and production and process [e.g. size of farm, types of tea produced i.e. focussed or diversified, soil management and land cultivation]. The conversations around these areas will guide who we go to visit - always bearing in mind that just because someone is not doing something now does not mean they can't - on this trip we met plenty of farmers with great ideas, tons of experience and positive intent who just need partners like us to help realise their vision. Then, all that is left to do is get on a plane, and approach every new interaction with an open mind and palate!
Our options for bringing you great tea : We visited each of the below - each offering exciting possibilities. The samples from each are of great quality, but vary in flavour and type enormously. If you come along to our next tasting you can experience this for yourself.
1. The first is a factory within its own estate that is also fed by smallholders in the surrounding area. All tea can be traced back to whether it came from the estate or the smallholders, with some types traceable to a individual groups of smallholders. They have an orthodox speciality tea line especially built in the last year. Farmers are paid above the KDTA rate for the tea they pick and there is potential for us to set up new enhanced payment routes working with specific smallholder groups - ensuring the premium we pay reaches the right people.
Image : Tasting tea [nice hat!]
2.The second option is a so called ‘cottage factory’. This is a smaller factory with a focus on creating a market for the local producers. It is currently being built by a very passionate man who has a great deal of experience in the tea industry. The aim is to support and benefit the local area by empowering the local women and employing locals who may not otherwise be employed. All profits would be fed back into the factory and community. This also has the possibility of receiving specific tea crops from other smallholders I visited on the trip. A batch of tea can be traced direct to the farmer who supplied the leaf, pay is good and the system employed means it is very transparent to us as merchants and you as tea drinkers.
Image : Explaining how the cottage factory will work
3. Next is a brand new factory that is currently only producing CTC but has the knowledge and the raw materials to produce good speciality orthodox tea. Currently they can produce small quantities by hand. They have an orthodox line planned for their factory in the future. Tea can be traced back to either the farm which is owned by the factory owner or a group of smallholders who feed into it. The relationship between the main owner and the smallholders is very close making the payment channels discussed in 1. above a reality here also.
Image : Making tea 'Comins Style' for smallholder farmers
4. Our fourth option is a retired General who has a good size smallholding and who is due to complete his own factory in around 2 months. He is looking to produce CTC initially but has expressed an interest in speciality orthodox if we agree a viable partnership.
5. The final option is tea produced by a Kenyan ‘tea master’ who has a degree in tea from a Chinese University. He works at one of the other cottage factories that has an orthodox line in place on the slopes of Mount Kenya. His knowledge and passion is very obvious, he produces great tea and he is keen to develop Kenyan tea further.
In my opinion, after five days of talking to farmers, factory owners, scientists and many who have been in the business many years, orthodox speciality tea offers an opportunity for change. We are firmly committed to promote Kenyan tea in any way we can. Watch this space!!
* Note on Orthodox Teas : The methods for producing whole leaf orthodox teas vary across the tea world from small farmers producing handmade teas [i.e. no machinery] to smallholders operating within co-operatives and feeding into small factories right up to larger factories that are fully automated and have an ‘orthodox line’ operating alongside their CTC line.