Smallholder Tea Farmers in Kenya

We recently stumbled across an interesting news article in Coastweek.com, a Kenyan based online newspaper. The article focused on a mobile network provider, Safricom, partnering with the Kenyan Tea Development Agency Ltd or KTDA, to change the way payments to smallholder tea farmers are handled. Specifically, the arrangement replaces all cash payments with M-PESA. If you haven’t heard of it, M-PESA is a branchless banking system developed by the global mobile network operator Vodaphone. In part, the your mobile network operator and retail outlets become your banking agents. The objective for KTDA is to improve security for employees at the factories who pay or delivered tea leaf as well as increase accountability and overall efficiency in payments and accounting. As it turns out this is but one step in helping support and increase profits for small tea farmers.

Smallholder Tea Plantations

UN Food and Agriculture Organization Logo

The UN FAO reviews the tea trade through its Inter-Governmental Group on Tea

Rather than write about M-PESA this article got us curious about the smallholder tea farmer system in Kenya and the relationship with KTDA. Smallholders, not large corporate plantations, as it turns out are a major source of tea produced in many countries. A 2012 review of smallholder tea farmer contributions by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization indicated that in countries like Sri Lanka, Kenya, China, and Vietnam smallholders produce the majority tea in these countries. This is opposed to countries like Indonesia and India where smallholders produce only about 20-25%.

Smallholder plantations, in theory provide a greater share of the profits to those at a local level, though the UN FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea study suggests there are quite a number of opportunities for improvement. Smallholders typically have difficulties commanding top prices for a variety of reasons including the lack of knowledge or capability to implement environmental, pest management, or other best practices.

KTDA Ltd and Kenyan Smallholders

Map of Tea Production in Kenya

A Map of Tea Production Areas in Kenya By Philippe Rekacewicz assisted by Cecile Marin, Agnes Stienne, Guilio Frigieri, Riccardo Pravettoni, Laura Margueritte and Marion Lecoquierre CC BY SA-3.0

The Kenyan Tea Development Agency got its start back in 1964 as Kenya got its independence and it became legal for locals to produce tea themselves. At the time the KTDA was charged with helping develop the industry for smallholders vs the large multinational corporations who still own plantations and produce a large percentage of tea in the region (and globally).

More recently, in 2000, KTDA became KTDA Ltd, a private company which continues to develop the smallholder tea industry. This arrangement, is just one approach found globally to supporting smallholders. KTDA Ltd operates effectively as a management firm providing best practices for smallholders in many areas as well as providing services that help smallholders command a greater share of the income. These services include everything from guidance on plucking and fertilizing through operations of factories as well as financial, sales, and marketing support.

In effect, KTDA Ltd helps organize and unite all the smallholder members to be competitive with the large industry players by increasing the portion of revenue earned from higher levels in the value chain. This includes at the manufacture and global wholesale portion of the value chain. It does this by having over 50 subsidiary factory companies to which over 560,000 smallholders both sell raw leaf and own a share of the company and resulting profits after manufacture and sale at the Mombasa Tea Auction.

The Future for Smallholder Tea Farmers

The number of smallholders worldwide looks to continue to grow for some time to come. This happens for many reasons but often its due to large corporate plantation abandonment (and subsequent re-establishment in smallholder schemes) and the purposeful dismantling of large government owned tea plantations. As the smallholder population increases it will be interesting to see how various countries approach supporting farmers in the practices and ownership methods that can help them thrive.

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Black Tea Risotto

As winter seems to keep coming earlier than I want, I went into the kitchen looking for something warm, soothing, and filling. Nothing fits that bill like risotto. Now, I will admit I am usually looking for ways to make the everyday recipes my own and that is why I thought to replace the traditional stock in this dish with tea.

In figuring out which tea to use, it is helpful to remember that risotto gets its creaminess from both the butter added at the end of cooking and the starch released from the rice during cooking. So whatever tea is chosen needs to hold up against dairy and nothing does that better than a good strong black tea. I am sure an Assam black tea or Yunnan would have done fine, but I opted for one of our favorites, Kosabei TGFOP, a black tea from Kenya with both a malty flavor and slightly floral notes.

Experiments with Risotto using Black Tea

Black Tea as Stock for Risotto

Black Tea Risotto

  • 4-6 tablespoons room temperature butter*
  • 6½ cups water
  • 1½ tsps of Kosabei TGFOP (Yunnan Sunrise, Classic Assam, or other bold black tea would work too)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1½ cups Arborio rice or another short grained rice
  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

*You can use oil, just use a lighter oil like corn or safflower, olive oil will overpower the tea flavor

First you will need to brew up your tea. Using a small stock pot or sauce pan, bring 6 ½ cups of water to a boil. Once it reaches a boil take the pot off the burner and then drop in all the tea. Allow the leaves to steep for 5 minutes and then pour everything through a strainer into a pitcher. Wipe any residual leaves out of the pot and then return the liquid to the pot. Put it over low heat so it stays warm while you are cooking the risotto. The best way to guarantee success with risotto is having warm liquid to pour over the rice.

Dice the onion into small pieces. Put a medium to large sauce pan (2 quarter sauce pan will give you more room to stir) on the stove at high heat. Put in 2 tablespoons of the butter and allow to melt. Add the onion to the butter and allow to cook for 3 to 5 minutes (the onions should look translucent). Stir periodically so your onions don’t brown. Then add the rice to the pan and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Stir occasionally to get the butter over all the rice and to evenly incorporate the onion. If using Arborio rice, when the kernels become clear around the edges it is the signal to start adding the tea.

Using a ladle, scope in one ladle of the tea and then stir until the liquid disappears. Then add the next ladle and repeat. Keeping going until you have roughly ½ cup left of the tea. Your rice should look plump and by in a slightly creamy sauce (it should not look soupy and the rice kernels should be apparent). Now add in the remaining butter 1 tablespoon at a time. If you cut the tablespoon into quarters it will melt faster. Also, this is where it is time to take a small taste of the risotto and see if you like the creaminess. It is not necessary to add all four tablespoons, it is more of a personal preference. Next, stir in the cup of cheese until it is fully incorporated.

Black tea risotto with some peas and garnish.

The Finished Black Tea Risotto Dish

Now is the time to judge if the remaining ½ cup of tea is necessary. If the risotto is looking dry, try adding a little at a time until it looks shiny. You can also skip the last half cup and save it for the morning if you like the taste of the risotto and how it looks. Salt and pepper to taste and if you want you can stir in ½ to ¾ cup of your favorite vegetable and a couple teaspoons of herbs (rosemary and green peas is one of my favorite combinations in this dish).

I was surprised at how the warm malty flavor of a good black tea adds unique note to this creamy dish. Not to mention, it turns it a warm wheat brown color almost like a loaf of bread. I hope this inspires you to try using tea in one of your favorite recipes.

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Kenyan Tea Industry

If you are an American, it is highly likely you have consumed Kenyan black tea and not even known it.  Unilever, parent company to Lipton, is the largest single tea plantation owner in Kenya.  Not to turn my nose up at Lipton, because sometimes that is all you can get your hands on in the country that runs on coffee, but what about the other 40% of tea plantations?

Map of Tea Production in Kenya

A Map of Tea Production Areas in Kenya By Philippe Rekacewicz assisted by Cecile Marin, Agnes Stienne, Guilio Frigieri, Riccardo Pravettoni, Laura Margueritte and Marion Lecoquierre CC BY SA-3.0

The Kenyan tea industry began in earnest in the 1930’s, almost thirty years after the first tea seeds were planted.  There are two main areas in Kenya that produce teas located on the east and west of the Great Rift Valley.  The Great Rift Valley is a large trench first described by English explorer, John Walter Gregory, that stretches from Syria down to Mozambique.  The rift in Kenya is now called the Gregory rift and lies along the edge of two tectonic plates that were once very active volcanic regions. These now dead volcanoes left a very valuable soil base that allows for agriculture to thrive in Kenya.    Thanks in part to that soil, Kenya is now the third largest producer of tea on the globe and the largest exporter in Africa.  Over 60% of the tea is grown on small farms and sent to one of 62 licensed manufactures that are overseen by the Kenyan Tea Board.

Photo of Kenyan Tea Plantation

Kericho Tea Plantation By Victor O’ (Flickr) CC By SA-2.0

These manufacturing facilities are within 50 km (31 miles) of the farms they have an agreement with and the Kenyan Tea Board heavily regulates which manufacturers serve which farmers and only allow for a farm to do business with one manufacturer.  The manufacturers combine all the delivered teas to produce their end product.  So, unfortunately, if you want a single estate tea from Kenya you have to look to larger growers who also own the manufacturing process.

Even on the larger plantations, most of the tea is harvested by hand with the Kenyan Tea Board promoting the two leaves and a bud standard for plucking. This is not that surprising when put into context around Kenya’s overall economy, which is still very much agrarian.  It has introduced a host of challenges for larger companies like Unilever, which faced a strike by its workers in 2007 concerning wages.  Much to Unilever’s credit they have been very open with the public on the wages and benefits they provide their workers and how they have worked to improve these.

Kenyan Tea Field

Tea Field – Kenya, By Shared Interest (Flickr) CC By 2.0

The majority of the Kenyan tea is manufactured using the Crush-Tear-Curl method or CTC.  There are some teas produced with the more traditional methods but in much smaller quantities that are harder to find outside of the country.  Even with the CTC method, Kenyan black tea carries a strong distinctive taste that holds up to milk and sugar or even just being drunk straight.

Have you had Kenyan tea?  What is your favorite?

 

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Tea Travels: How Does Tea Get to Market?

As we noted in an earlier blog about where tea is grown, tea comes from a large number of countries around the world, though only a relatively small number including China, India, Japan, and Kenya produce it in large scale.  But we were curious, how does the tea actually get into our hands for consumption?

Tea, of course, starts with the plant, Camellia sinensis.  Tea plants begin life as cuttings in a nursery before being planted in fields for commercial growing.  These fields may be corporately owned or those of smallholders which makeup a substantial, if not the majority of growers around the world. (United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, 2012).  After a flush of new growth appears, pluckers will pick leaves ranging from a bud only to a bud and two or three leaves, collecting the leaves in a basket or other container.  While manual labor is used for most plucking, some tea is harvested by mechanical means.

After plucking, tea immediately begins to loose moisture and begin oxidation and must quickly get to a manufacturing plant.  So the farm and the manufacturing plant must be close enough to allow raw leaves to be delivered immediately.  Farmers rarely own manufacturing facilities themselves, so after tea is picked in the field it is carried to a factory on foot, car, truck, bicycle, or motorcycle depending on what happens to be at hand.  This may be done by the farmer or by middlemen who purchase the raw tea leaves and transport it to the factory for processing.

Tea Chests

Tea Chests by Flickr user mikecogh, CC BY-SA-2.0

Once at a factory the tea leaves are processed and turned into one of the major types of teas.   This may be done using CTC or Orthodox methods, ultimately resulting in a finished tea product that is ready for packaging and sale.  At this stage tea is packaged in large containers made of a variety of types including polypropylene, jute (vegetable fiber spun into threads), or paper sacks or in tea chests.  Tea chests are made of plywood lined with aluminum foil and parchment paper to ensure they resist absorption of other aromas and, when full, may weigh 75-160 lbs while foil lined tea sacks may weigh 55-130 lbs. (TIS-GDV, 2013)

Depending on country and local arrangement, tea may be sold directly to distributors and wholesalers or may go through auction.  There are well established auction houses in Colombo, Mombasa, Calcutta, and cities in other major tea producing countries of the world.  In some cases the tea is actually packaged and leaving port before money has traded hands!

Shipping Containers

Shipping Containers by Flicker user wirralwater, CC BY-2.0

Packaged tea is shipped in a variety of methods although excessive handling is not desired as sacks and chests are easily damaged resulting in loss of the tea within.  It is normally placed on pallets and then moved by forklift into a shipping container to be shipped around the world.  When it gets to the destination port this container may be emptied and the contents re-shipped, or the container itself may be forwarded on to the end buyer.

Upon reaching the distributor or wholesaler the shipment of tea is then split up, sold in existing packaging, or repackaged into smaller sizes for purchase by retailers and in some cases direct to consumer.  At this point some tea may become the base of a blended tea or may remain as is.  Finally, the retailer will repackage the finished product into sizes that are manageable for consumers and sold directly or sold to other retailers, tea houses, or hospitality establishments.

Since tea does have a shelf life it is important to get the tea to retailers and consumers quickly.  Some aspects of shipping can be done faster, especially with air shipping and consumer purchase direct from the grower.  However, these are generally niche solutions with low volume, appropriate for specialty teas and buyers who really know what they want and are willing to deal with some added risk of placing orders with a company overseas.

So where do you buy your tea?  Physical tea store, on-line retailer, farmers market, other?

Like what we have to say?  Let us know, follow the Dominion Tea blog or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

David @ Dominion Tea

Works Cited

TIS-GDV. (2013). Tea. Retrieved from Transport Information Services – GDV: http://www.tis-gdv.de/tis_e/ware/genuss/tee/tee.htm

United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization. (2012). Contribution of Smallholders to the tea sub-sector and policies required to enhance their livelihood. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Intergovernmental Group on Tea.

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Terroir of Tea

Tea Plantation

A Tea Plantation somewhere in Alishan
By Alexander Synaptic (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

Terroir (ter-war) is used to define the characteristics of a place (soil, water, altitude, latitude and climate) that effect the taste of a final agricultural product.  Wine is the main agricultural product defined by terroir.  The French really drove the use of terroir in describing agricultural products with its regulations requiring use of region in labeling of French wine. For example, wines produced in the Bordeaux region of France are classified by a sub region in relation to where they are to the Garonne River – Saint-Estèphe, Paulliac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Graves, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.  These classifications were originally made in 1855 and have been adhered to since then because they have helped the producers to distinguish their products from each other, define quality and drive up prices.  Tea can also be defined by terroir; the only problem is that the producers of tea are not always using this to their advantage.  India is one exception – Assam, Darjeeling, Kangra, Dooars, Terai and Nilgiri teas are all named after the region in which they are grown and marketed in a fashion that helps the consumer associate the region to the flavor of the final beverage.

So what conditions does tea need to grow?  To its advantage, the tea plant is a very versatile perennial, so it can grow in a variety of soil types.

Photo of Dragon Well Plantation

Dragon Well Tea Plantation – Hangzhou
By Dave Proffer (Flickr id)
CC BY 2.0

However, for optimal production the soil should be acidic, between 4.5 to 5.5 ph., loose enough to allow the 6 foot tap root to burro down to its preferred length, and contain a good mix of nutrients (Nitrogen, Magnesium, Calcium, etc.) that the tea plant uses to grow.  Like other plants, it will strip nutrients from the soil necessitating replenishment via some manner of fertilization.  The Japanese use grasses to re-fertilize their tea plants, which influence the taste of the final tea and is credited by the tea farmers for the complex flavors of their teas.

Five hours of direct sunlight is optimal, however, less light disturbs the chloroplasts in the tea leaves, creating more aromatic oils and slowing growth.  This is why high altitude teas are considered the higher quality tea, they get between 2-3 hours of sunlight, creating more aromatic oils.  Those oils create the complex flavor of those teas.  More than five hours and plant will continue to grow, but the flavor will be dramatically different.

The tea plant likes lots of water, but doesn’t want to sit in it.  Plants need at least 50 inches of rain annually and 70-90% humidity.  By definition the water and humidity requirement put the plant in the sub-tropic to tropic zone, and while it can handle some weather variation it cannot survive prolonged dry seasons or freezing.

Latitude effects terroir through the length of the growing period.  The closer to the equator (think Kenya and Argentina), the longer the growing period.  In Kenya, tea is harvested year-round while it is only harvested twice a year (spring and fall) in most Chinese regions.  Tea in Taiwan is harvested five times a year between April and December with the July and August harvests continually ranked as the finest.

Photo of Munnar Plantation

ST831850 – Munnar tea plantation
By fraboof (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

So how does one use terroir when purchasing tea?  Look for where the tea comes from, and if possible search for single origin teas from one tea plantation.  This will allow you to identify the flavor unique to the tea produced in that region, for instance Assam tea is consistently malty in flavor.  Dongding Oolong produced in the Nantou county of Taiwan is said to gets its unique award winning flavor from the constant fog in this mountainous region.  There are many black teas from China associated with the provenience it is grown it.  A Yunnan black tea tastes very different from a Fujian black tea.  So treat your teas like wine, know where they come from, learn their flavors and enjoy comparing them.  It makes drinking a cup of tea a truly special experience.

What do you think?  Can you taste the terrior in your tea?

@HillaryColey

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