We often talk about serendipity in our lives in tea and this is how our story with Kenyan tea starts. On a summer day a friendly lady wandered in and enquired about our range of Kenyan teas. Explaining that we only buy from growers or gardens we have visited or have direct relations with she proceeded to share that her relative owned a tea estate in Kenya and enquired if we would like to be connected. Those of you who know us and follow our story will know what the answer is always....YES!....its only by saying yes on pretty much a daily basis that Comins is what it is today.
Image : Looking out over the tea fields in Bomet County | Kenya
And so connections have been made, relationships formed and our knowledge of the Kenyan tea market has grown thanks to the generosity of our new friends Sharon & Nick. As we speak Rob is on the plane to Nairobi to meet new growers, form new connections and add teas to our collection that will continue to redefine perceptions of just how smooth, flavourful and distinctive black tea can be.
We asked both Sharon & Nick who we are working with to share the stories behind their interest and involvement in Kenyan tea. Here is what they had to say. It sets a nice tone for the trip ahead and what you can expect to hear & taste from us!
Sharon : "My interest and passion lies in ensuring Kenyan Tea farmers get a fair price for their products in Western markets by helping to build direct trade links. From my research and work on the ground in Kenya I realised that most farmers lose out to middlemen or cartels, who buy farmers produce at throw away prices only to then sell on the produce at a higher rate - a rate that is not shared or passed on to the farmer. If we can identify and work with companies like Comins we can start to set up new routes, with direct links to farmers".
Image : Sharon, Betty [Whose gardens Rob will be visiting] with Michelle at Comins in Bath in January : 'we had such a great time - eating Kenyan food, discussing Kenyan life and putting plans in place for exciting new partnerships'
So how can we move from Kenyan Black tea being seen as a constituent of 'builders with milk and two sugars' to a drink that is asked for by name and recognised as a stand alone, flavourful, orthodox offering. Sharon sees action being needed in three areas.
"Firstly we need to work together with the farmers and educate them on the importance of sustainable farming practices as well as share perspectives on the shape of the premium tea market. This will help to contribute to the production of high quality products for the international market. At the other end we need to educate the end customer on the supply chain as it looks now, showing the benefit of buying directly from the farmers who will then get a fair price for their produce - directly contributing to an improvement in their livelihoods. In countries such as Kenya we have spent a lot of time discussing what an amazing difference a little change in income can do in the rural area setting where most farmers are based. Finally we need people on the ground, KEY voices who can speak directly to farmers at the ground /grass root level, making it easier to incorporate and spearhead change"
Image : Tea Growing Areas of Kenya : Source http://www.fao.org
This last part is where Nick comes in. Rob will travel with Nick throughout Kenya over the next week visiting key voices in the Kenyan Tea Industry at policy level as well as a broad spectrum of farmers ranging from village farmers who are representative of typical small holders to slightly more elaborate farms - but still small scale. He will also be visiting recently started cottage factories that have just started the production of orthodox teas. No doubt he will see much of the work outlined by Sharon above already in practice. The hope for us as a company is that we can gain a deeper understanding of how a modern partnership between grower, tea merchant and consumer could look and identify some great teas to bring back to Comins. So now to Nick - here is a little more on his vast experience in the Kenyan Tea Industry.
Here is Nick's story : "I started my journey in the tea industry when I was recruited by the then Brooke Bond Kenya Limited as a management trainee in 1980. I rose through the ranks in the field and factories department and eventually retired as the National Health and Safety Manager responsible for all tea plantations and factories in Unilever East Africa. In 2007, I was a member of the Taskforce on the reformation of the tea industry in Kenya and am currently the Chairman of the Taskforce on the future of the tea industry in Kericho County which is the single largest producer of tea in Kenya and by extension the whole tea world"
"I have previously served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Tea Growers Association which brings together all the large scale tea companies in Kenya i.e. multinationals and it was during my tenure as the Chairman of the Kericho County Taskforce that I got to grips with pertinent issues affecting the tea industry and more so the smallholder farmers who have less than adequate voice in the way the entire tea value chain is run. Apparently the smallholder farmer happens to be at the bottom of the tea chain and always gets a raw deal especially when it comes to the take-home pay"
In our meetings with Nick he explained to us his view that the tea trade is set in such a way that the tea brokers and buyers get the cream 'leaving the poor farmer with the crumbs that fall off the table'. In his experience this has led to 'disillusioned farmers who have very little to show for their efforts' Nick told us 'It is with this in mind that I made efforts to link farmers directly to credible markets which are interest in making the tea farmers life better and rewarding for all their efforts in the production of tea'
It will be an incredible honour to travel with Nick and to continue to work with Sharon - two wonderful and dynamic partners passionate about new opportunities for both growers and consumers. The kind of open and generous people who make the tea industry a great place to work and continually learn. We can't wait to share more from our trip.