Over 3,500 tea farmers in Njunu tea factory of Thika are processing their own tea and selling it internationally earning then more than double what their counterparts earn by supplying raw green leaf to factories and tea brokers. Through savings and assistance from financial institutions the factory has managed to secure equipments they use in the processing.
The value added tea which is usually sold in Pakistan and Egyptian stores earns farmers on average Sh110 a kilo, double what tea farmers earned last year which was the highest payment to small scale tea farmers in the world. The process of adding value to the green leaf starts with farmers delivering the green leaf which is then taken to the withering stage.
Here fans blow in fresh air into the leaf so to remove the water and reduce moisture content from around 80 percent to about 67 percent which is the agreed standard. It is in this stage where taste is also still developed. THe leaf then undergoes maceration, where it is torn to squeeze out the juices. “The juices are being mixed into the dhool which are the finer particles. The leaf comes out as a mass with both the leaves which are torn and the juices, only that the juices now come out of the cells, because they have been squeezed,”said Mr. Samuel Mwangi the Production manager at Njunu tea factory.
The next stage is fermenting where with a continuous fermenting machine. “ Oxidation happens here where air is blown in. And the important chemical changes takes place in the juices that are produced, which are inherent in the leaf. When the juices come out we start fermenting,”added Mwangi. Fermentation takes about 100 minutes.
The fermented 'tea' is then discharged to a series of conveyors into the drier. At 140 degrees centigrade, the drier reduces the moisture content from the initial 67 percent to 3 percent in under 30 minutes.
“ We keep moisture content at just 3 percent so that we can preserve the keeping qualities of the tea and arrest any microbial activity, so contamination cannot occur after the drier. After the drier you start to see black tea, which is now really tea that we can actually enjoy a cup anytime after that. Then after the tea is taken to the Sharples. It is a series of sieves which have got different sized holes. So like the first one, it is able to trap the big particles and then we make that grade. Then everything else is able to go down. Then there is the second sieve which makes the tea finer,”said Mwangi.
However the grains are packed differently depending on the markets. For example Pakistan prefer the biffer sized grains while UK prefers smaller grains which are packed in tea bags. It is a breakthrough that has assisted the tea farmers in the area easily diversify their markets with most of the traders in Europe and Pakistan buying from the factory and repackaging them. “The difference we have noticed here is that because this is the final product, it fetches higher than delivering the green leaf,”said Aron Wamai a tea farmer who deliver to the factory.
Although there has been efforts to encourage local processing and value addition of Kenyan tea, the processing still remains dismal. Currently only about 12 per cent of Kenya’s tea output is value-added despite the premium returns realised from the sale of such tea. The rest is shipped out in bulk form and blended with teas from other producing countries.
In 2012, the country had a leaf processing capacity of 370 million kilogrammes against a total leaf production of 369 million kilogrammes.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter