Inspired by Far Eastern fashions, a local company has launched brands of Kenyan tea and coffee blended with the Reishi mushroom, pitching into a $4bn world market for the mushroom, which boosts immunity in AIDS sufferers and is filled with anti-oxidant health properties.
The move comes as part of an emerging trend from local processors towards developing value-added teas and coffees, and follows the striking success of similar beverages in the north American market, where Gano Cafe blends Reishi with Brazilian Coffee with now over 2 million customers in some 14 countries.
To make its new East African version of the drinks, Biosafe technologies is sourcing the Reisha from Kenyan farmers at Sh1800 per kg, drawing farmers out of Oyster mushrooms, where they had problems establishing a market, into supplying the new demand for the Reisha, which is far easier to package.
Kenya still imports most of the mushrooms it eats, despite rich potential to grow locally and high returns on initial investments. The problems, which are now seeing some small-scale farmers abandon the crop, lie in the quality, and, above all, the marketing. Once mushrooms are in full harvest, finding outlets for the volume is stymieing many a grower, fueling calls for greater local processing.
In Kenya, the two types of mushrooms with an established local market, are the oyster mushroom and the button mushroom. The oyster mushroom is cheap to grow, but hard to sell in volume, whereas the button requires a much larger investment, but then sells far better.
With Sh30, 000 and a little space, one can grow oyster mushrooms, said mushroom growing consultant Justus Wambua, the Manager of Biosafe Technologies. “These take a month to incubate and three months to harvest,” he said, and a 3 x 3 meter room can hold 1000 mushroom sets on small polythene bags.
When mature, each bag can produce at least 400 grams of mushrooms. A kilogram of oyster mushrooms sold to local shopping outlets fetches Sh400, meaning that if the 1000 bags each yield 400 grams, the revenue can total Sh160, 000, less packaging costs of Sh40 a pack.
Sums such as these, that triple investment in a few months, have drawn many into mushroom farming, but some, particularly small scale farmers, are now abandoning cultivation due to marketing bottlenecks. For small scale farmers, the daily production from a 3x3 metre mushroom room can be 5kgs daily for the three month harvesting span. “You can’t sell that to a supermarket” said Wambua.
George Gichuhi a farmer and instructor based at Rongai said the secret to a better market for mushrooms lies in quality. “The trick is in the product quality” said Gichuhi. Mushrooms are susceptible to attacks by caterpillars.
He also points to the value addition of diversifying by marketing mushrooms dried or pickled or as part of a food menu, especially for oyster mushrooms.
By contrast to the easy-entry oyster mushroom, the more lucrative button mushroom can cost Sh200, 000 to establish in a 3 x 3 metres room and “it’s very labour intensive”, said Gichuhi. If one step in its cultivation is bungled, it interferes with the whole maturity and growth.
However, the returns per kilogram can be over Sh500, said Wambua. “Some 90 per cent of button mushrooms sell, compared to the oyster at 10 per cent.” The button mushrooms produced in Kenya meet 46 per cent of the local market demand, while the rest is imported from Far East.
However, just like the oyster, large-scale farming tends to be more economically viable, through ensuring consistent yield and a sustained market supply to a farmer’s clientele.
But even as the challenges of ensuring quality and establishing sufficient and regular marketing outlets hold local production back, the scope for mushrooms looking forward is substantial.
Mushroom are rich sources of Vitamin D and have minerals like potassium which control errant blood pressure – now a surging problem in Kenya. The selenium mineral additionally protects body cells from damage and for vegetarians they provide vitamin B that’s available in meat.
Just over a year ago University Of Nairobi science laboratories, started conducting scientific tests on the Ganoderma Lucidum mushroom also called Reishi in Japanese. Sparsely grown in Kenya, the Reishi mushroom is believed to have some immune boosting extracts useable in HIV Anti-Retroviral Therapy. These supplements are medically known to reduce opportunistic infections common among HIV sufferers.
Similar studies have been conducted on Reishi in the Far East and in the West although they have not yet been conclusive. One such study was done at Seattle by a naturopathic doctor Jessica Leopard based at Seattle’s Bastyr University and publicised at an International Aids conference held at Rio de Janeiro in July 2005.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
As tea producers grapple with erratic rains that have knocked tea production in the first quarter, the local tea market has moved into sharp take-off, according to the half year report from the Tea Board of Kenya.
In the year to June 2011, local tea consumption jumped by a full 16 per cent, rising to over 10m kgs up from 8.6m kgs in the previous 12 months, in a surge that is being attributed to sustained promotional campaigns by the tea board and intensive brand promotions by tea packers.
“Factory gate sales have also provided an awareness platform and encouraged repeat sales at the grass root level,” said Tea Board of Kenya Managing Director, Mrs. Sicily Kariuki while releasing the report.
However, most profoundly, the rise represents a shift in strategy and marketing by the Kenyan tea industry as a whole. following from increased competition from leading tea exporters like Sri Lanka and India, coupled with price fluctuations due to global oversupply of tea.
Until now, Kenya's tea industry has been vulnerable to even the smallest wrinkles in the tea export market. Historically, some 95 per cent of Kenyan has been exported, with domestic consumption standing at just 5 per cent and individual tea-drinking standing at just 0.48 kgs a year, compared with countries like the UK, one of the export destinations for Kenya’s tea, where annual individual tea consumption stands at 2 kgs.
The challenge of converting local consumers to the joy of tea and attracting them to value-added and higher quality teas has been driven by the KTDA with the launch of T-Spot, an up-market tea house set on the ground floors of Chai House along Koinange Street in Nairobi. Run by a restaurant consultant management, Blanco's Holdings, the café specializes in serving quality tea, which includes all the teas grown in the country; and presented in every form from cookies made from tea to tea mochas.
The model has quickly gained momentum. On Loita Street, a lane away from T-Spot, is Sasini House, which not only houses the headquarters of a tea and coffee company, but now a new tea and coffee restaurant. Both tea cafes have played a role in delivering a new, more fashionable note to tea drinking, and new local tea lovers.
“These interesting and very well brewed local teas like teappuccino, chai latte and chai mocha make me pass here everyday after my job. I crave for these types of wonderful teas,” said Millicent Wairimu a 25 year old accountant working in Nairobi and customer of the T-Spot café.
As part of its diversification programme Sasini has also established another tea outlet at the newly refurbished National Museums of Kenya headquarters in Nairobi's Museum.
Alongside the new tea café model, KTDA four years ago introduced a Local Generic Promotion Campaign promoting tea as a drink in country-wide road-shows, in-store and door-to-door promotions, and aggressive media campaigns targeting the youth, middle-aged consumers, and women in both rural and urban areas who form the largest population of tea drinkers, but tend to drink tea only once per day.
The drive has also been combined with programmes by tea packers like KETEPA to encourage Kenyans to take more tea by outlining the health benefits derived from tea compared with soft drinks “The objective is to drive home the message that tea is not just a “breakfast” beverage, but one to be taken any time of the day with increased frequency for better health,” said Ms Sicily Kariuki when launching the plan.
The take-off of value addition in Kenyan tea, by adding spices like cinnamon, garlic, lemon grass, ginger, cloves and even fresh parsley and vanilla to cater for customer’s varied tastes has also endeared teas to local consumers.
Mrs Flora Mutahi, who pioneered value addition with her company Melvin Mash, insists that the most beautiful thing that ever happened to her is filling the vacuum in Kenyan stale tea by adding excitement in the local tea market. With the powerful aroma of spices wafting into the corridors of her office in Nairobi's Industrial Area, she says: “I am glad that my efforts have really spiced Kenyans life and more Kenyans now are falling in love with their Kenyan tea.”
The Tea Board of Kenya has also been pushing the government to remove Value Added Tax (VAT) on local tea to increase consumption in the country, in line with countries like Tanzania, which have long exempted their local tea from VAT, even leading to greater competition with Kenyan tea.
It’s an array of marketing that now seems to be delivering some first insulation for the country’s tea industry from the shocks of international competition, which its most vigorous competitors have always been more protected from.
India for example, one of Kenya’s biggest rivals, produces most of its tea for local consumption. In 2010, India produced 30 per cent of the world’s tea, but consumed 85 per cent of that on the local market.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
The period from September to March is the peak season for tea growing in Kenya and, therefore, a time when extra help is needed to cope with the sudden rush of leaf that needs to be plucked. Traditionally, employees bring in their relatives as ‘helpers’ and, since pay at the end of the month is calculated according to the kilos picked, everyone aims to pluck as much leaf as possible.
On a large scale, the tea estate benefits from extra hands to pluck leaf during the peak season whilst the worker’s family is able to earn extra income. The big concern, however, is that these ‘helpers’ are usually under age and their involvement in tea plucking for pay breaches Kenyan law and the international labour organization standards.
This trend has been in existence for long in tea growing areas in Kenya. Last year a shocking story of how tea estates in Limuru were hiring school going children of as young as ten years to pluck tea for them and paying them a pitiful 50 Ksh daily exposed the rot that has existed for long in the tea industry. Women who produce most of the tea grown in Kenya have been complaining that their contribution to the industry, which is the country's leading foreign currency earner, has always been downplayed.
While most smallholdings are owned by men, it is a common practice in Kenya that more of these farms are run by their wives, who play such crucial roles as mobilizing farm workers, participating in tea picking, weeding and tending farms, yet they have put up with discrimination and exploitation in the tea estates.
The tea industry raises a number of health and safety issues. Tea plucking can be hazardous work, resulting in back pains. Workers who cultivate and pluck tea are exposed to toxic pesticides and insecticides, insects and snakes. The work is physically demanding, because pickers must carry the bags of tea to the collection points.
Improper use of chemicals, due to lack of knowledge among the sprayers is a problem that often occurs on tea plantations. As many workers on tea plantations live with their families on the tea estates, lack of adequate housing and sanitary facilities are health and safety issues that are particularly relevant for the tea sector.
Concerns have also been raised over insufficient remuneration for tea-farm workers. On average, workers who are mostly casual workers get four shillings per kilogramme of green leaf, while salaries of permanently engaged team leaders and supervisors range within 3000 shillings and 5000 per month, depending on experience and employer.
One institution however has made it their business to ensure tea production in Kenya follows the internationally expected standards and change the grim picture that is portrayed in tea producing zones in Kenya. Ethical Tea Partnership commonly referred to as ETP is a non-profit alliance of tea companies that aims to guarantee that the tea sold by its members is produced in a socially responsible way.
Since it set base in Kenya in 1997, many tea producers, packers and blenders have hopped on board with the realization that failure to get certification from ETP would spell doom to their teas.
Negative media coverage on, for example, working conditions for women and children on tea estates have greatly influenced EU sales and EU consumers have consistently demanded more information about where the tea they consume come from and how it is produced. As a result, since 1997 a few large tea-packing companies started to work together, in what is now called the “Ethical Tea Partnership” (ETP).
The ETP since then has been striving for improvement of the social conditions under which tea is produced by monitoring and regulating the living and working conditions on the estate, or in the garden or factory of a tea producer. “Some of these violations happen consciously or unconsciously and we have been proactive in letting the tea producers know that tea has to be produced ethically,” says Ms Sarah Roberts Executive Director of ETP.
It is customary on tea estates in Kenya to search staff leaving the factory to guard against theft of company property. Security staff run their hands over an employee’s clothes to check there is nothing hidden underneath – often an uncomfortable situation for female employees when this is done by men. ETP has been negotiating with estates to ensure that a female staff member is always on duty as workers leave at lunchtime and at the end of the day.
It’s a policy which has minimised embarrassment, improved labour relations and proved cost effective for the factories, as they have switched male and female staff on the rota instead of hiring additional staff, a key factor previously inhibiting change. Tea is produced in Kenya all year round and most factories use casual workers in addition to permanent staff.
For the casual worker, it’s a precarious existence; he or she is employed on a day to day basis and if there’s no work – if the weather changes or a machine breaks down, for example – they are sent home without pay. Instead of being paid daily, casual workers are paid at the end of the month and will only receive pay for the days that have been worked, while a permanent worker will receive a full consolidated wage regardless.
Repeatedly using casual labour is against Kenyan law and is an important ETP non-conformance and a breach of standards for all of the certification schemes.
ETP has also been awarding certificates and grading individual tea estates, including tea estates in developing countries. Tea estates are graded after the monitoring visit has taken place. Grades are determined by the Partnership after the monitors’ report has been received. Grades range from A-F: grades A-C merit a certificate, grades D-E do not, Grade F Indicates a fail and estates are removed from the members’ Approved Supplier list, unless they show that they are ready to immediately work to remedy the non-conformance.
However, ETP’s mission goes much deeper. ETP believes that the success of its activities depends on how the tea packers work together with tea growers in finding creative and practical solutions to the problems that occur and therefore stimulates tea producers and tea packers to build secure and sustainable relationships. ETP also helps tea growers become aware of consumer concerns on the one hand, and works on gaining recognition from consumers who buy and drink the tea on the other hand.
Joseph Wagurah, the ETP Regional Manager for Africa, is drawing on his experience of working in the Kenyan flower industry to change this practice. He has begun negotiating with some of the largest groups of producers to persuade them to adopt a seasonal contract, where the worker is employed between set dates, renewable by mutual agreement at the end of the period, and paid as a permanent worker would be.
“The difference between the two sets of employees is the period of employment - while a permanent worker is employed on a permanent basis, a seasonal worker is employed for a defined period of time, usually the high season,” says Wagurah.
“It will take time to introduce this because of the cost implications, but it’s worth doing.
By doing this, producers will not only be taking remedial action against their own non-conformance, but will be fulfilling the aims of the ETP. It will boost the morale of the seasonal employees and hence improve labour relations and harmony in the tea sector,” says Mr. Wagurah
ETP has also rolled out various training programmes in the country which target tea factory managers and estate supervisors. Partnering with Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA) and Federation of Kenyan Employers (FKE), ETP has been training the factory managers and estate supervisors on social issue in their workplace for example how to detect discrimination and harassment and how to address it amicably.
The initiative has also sought to train them on legislations both local and international regarding for example child labour and exploitation and the requirements of the tea they produce in the international market.
Also in the offing is a partnership with GTZ the federally owned German organization that works worldwide in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development, for a pilot three year training programme in the highest tea producing zones in Kenya which include Central Kenya and Rift Valley.
Meant for the tea producers the training programmes seeks to train the producers on how to adopt to the impacts of climate change and in their own unique ways mitigate climate change. “We have identified this programme as a perfect way to move from criticism to finding solutions, and since Kenya has been feeling the effects of climate change we feel we can empower the producers to be part of conserving the environment,” points out Sarah Roberts.
Written by Bob Koigi
After the Oyster is harvested, it needs specialised packing and handling, costing Sh60 a kg, to maintain its freshness.It also need requires refrigeration during transportation and careful handling to avert spoilage and maintain its shape for easy marketability. “The look is very important to the customer,” said Justus Wambua, Biosafe’s manager.
However, the Reishi mushroom is more robust and can be sold when dry as well as fresh, lasting for over six years when dried.
Biosafe is currently sourcing the mushroom from 30 small holder mushroom farmers in Nairobi, Nakuru and Thika in quantities as low as 3 kilograms. “Some farmers are sending it to us in parcels,” said Wambua
The company’s willingness to buy small and irregular quantities has opened a new window for the country’s mushroom farmers, in a sector that has been plagued by marketing problems. Mushrooms are in big demand in Kenya by major shopping outlets, but most small holder farmers are unable to produce enough consistently to meet the demand of these shopping outlets.
That has resulted in smallholders abandoning the crop despite its potential for high returns. Biosafe is buying a maximum of 30 to 40kgs per season from each farmer. “So that there is no overproduction,” said Wambua.
For as little as Sh30, 000 a farmer can farm Reishi in a 3 x 3 meter room. It takes a month to incubate and guarantees three months of harvest. Such a room can hold 1000 mushrooms growing on small polythene bags.
The Reishi Mushroom is highly valued in the Far Eastern for its inherent medicinal qualities. It has been shown to have compounds that boost the immunity in patients with AIDS as well as help in producing T lymphocytes cells that fight various forms of cancers.
In China the Reishi is viewed as a longevity herb. It is also an anti oxidant that cleanses the body of toxins and excess fats and improves blood circulation. However pregnant women are advised not to take it, as is anyone on anticoagulants to stop blood clotting.
According to medical studies, the Reisha can cause nausea in some people or interfere with other medicines.
To market the new Reishi beverages, Biosafe is currently using a ‘business builders’ referral system with, so far, 56 business builders “and the number is growing daily,” said Wambua. They started recruiting the business builders 3 weeks ago. It is a similar model to the marketing network used by GNLD, SwissGarde and Tianshi in markeing their health supplements, and works by getting buyers of the product to recommend it to friends or family.
Biosafe pays a commission to business builders according to the number of units sold, with marketers able to earn from Sh7200 to Sh360,000 monthly.
Wambua argues that introducing the Reishi blends is creating employment to people even with minimum academic qualifications, as well as for farmers.
In their first month, Biosafe has sold 5000 packets of the Tea blend and 1200 of coffee. A packet of tea for 25 servings sells at Sh250 and coffee with 60 servings costs Sh1200.
The world market for Reishi mushroom themselves is worthsome $4 billion according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), with India importing the bulk of its Reishi from Malaysia and China. China is the world’s biggest cultivator of Reishi and provides two thirds of Reishi in the world, according to ICAR.
Biosafe is sourcing its tea and coffee from local auctions and processors.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
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