Tea tree earns farmers fortunes

Impoverished farmer Julius Munyiri had struggled for years to provide for his six children on his 1.2 acre plot of land located at the foothills of Mount Kenya. Droughts, marauding wildlife and market fluctuations are constant threats to the survival of smallholders.

Munyiri grows vegetables for the European export market but brokers constantly dictate low prices.
“My hands are tied every time, as once the produce is ripe, I have to sell them at any price. That’s just the way it has always been,” says Munyiri.

Once, opportunistic brokers came along and commissioned him to grow castor plants and later amaranth. Both times, the buyers failed to honour their orders. Munyiri nearly went bankrupt. Then came the reversal of fortunes, although he was understandably hesitant when Earthoil Kenya approached him in 2007 to supplement his food crops with organic tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), a new crop.

“Earthoil has a distillation factory nearby, and they visited me several times so I felt more assured,” says Munyiri. Earthoil is a global commercial processing and export company supplying the global market with oil extracts from macadamia, moringa, papaya seeds and passion fruit by thousands of small-scale farmers in East Africa. It introduced tea tree to the farmers living around the small town of Naro Moro through the Kenya Organic Oil Farmers Association (Koofa) in 2007.

A key customer is The Body Shop, which has worked closely with Koofa and Earthoil in enlisting the farmers as its community trade suppliers. Organic tea tree oil from Koofa is just the latest raw ingredient sourced under The Body Shop’s Community Fair Trade (CFT) programme. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick’s first trade with Teddy Exports of India.

Tea tree requires less investment and labour, yet provides steady cash in an area where farmers earn a per capita income of less than a dollar a day. Munyiri’s first harvest was just 660kg, as the trees were single stems, earning him Kenyan Shillings Sh9,000. After harvesting, he left 15cm to 20cm stumps in the ground to sprout more branches.

Drought destroyed much of Munyiri’s second harvest, and he collected just Sh5,000. His third harvest, however, rewarded him with Sh18,000. Munyiri was eagerly awaiting his next harvest during our visit to his farm last month organised by The Body Shop.

The money, Munyiri said, would buy five cows that can produce biogas to generate electricity for his farm. Earnings from his previous harvests saw to his children’s school fees, clothes and books, and contributed to his second son’s medical studies in Russia, where he is on a scholarship.

Munyiri added joyfully that he’d also splurged on a new shirt for himself at the local market. He is very positive about the tea tree. “The market is assured,” he says, beaming.  In 2007, Earthoil selected the Mount Kenya region as its production site as other Melaleuca species already grew wild in the area.

The plant flourishes in subtropical climates in moist soil, but it also holds up during droughts, fires and flooding. Tea trees also provide fuel wood that help mitigate deforestation. The trees have a lifespan of 25 years and can be harvested within 12 months of planting, with new crops every eight to 10 months.

Mark Davis, The Body Shop’s CFT director, is especially delighted with the project. “Since 1994, we have been buying tea tree from Australia’s indigenous communities,” he explains.

“With increasing government support, the community decided they wanted to get involved in other activities instead of providing essential oils for the beauty industry. “We looked at it as a fresh opportunity to continue working with marginalised farmers and communities under our CFT principles. We’d been working with Earthoil in Australia, and its African operations director Wayne Barratt told us they were exploring possibilities in Kenya.”

Koofa was established after numerous discussions with local farmers. Today there are 484 members under a 15-member board. Any farmer can join as long as he or she is willing to grow organic tea tree and pay the Sh500 lifetime membership fee.

“For years, we’d relied on growing vegetables for the European export market,” explains Koofa chairman Gibson Wahome.
“We’ve also attempted to plant borage (an oilseed herb) but lost much of it to bugs. Vegetables required many chemicals and are subject to market demands, so we have irregular income.

“However, we are very positive about tea tree. It’s a good crop especially as we grow it 100 percent organic. It’s not easily perishable and there is an assured market.

“Koofa serves as a unified front so we can offer a larger amount of pure organic tea tree and command a better price. We worked closely with NGOs, The Body Shop and Earthoil to map out fair prices,” Wahome explained.
Farmers are paid using Mpesa.

An integral part of The Body Shop’s CFT programme is its promise to benefit local communities directly. Thus, the company contributes to an additional common fund started by the farmers to improve the local community with a percentage of their earnings channelled into it. The initial amount collected of Sh750,000 is funding five deserving and academically inclined orphans to continue their education.

Koofa’s tea trees are planted and harvested entirely by hand. The crops are rain-fed and some are irrigated by glacial waters under a project that channels melting snow from Mount Kenya.

“Koofa’s tea tree oils are of very high quality, as they are 100 percent organic so they are more beneficial to the skin,” explains Davis.

The 2011 harvest of crops resulted in 3.1 tonnes of pure tea tree oil a mere 1kg is extracted from 100kg of leaves. A single tree can yield about 3kg of leaves. The farmers are on their way to reaching a targeted two million trees, as many are expanding their existing plots.

This year, The Body Shop ordered six tonnes of oil, double last year’s amount, and the farmers could barely keep up. Koofa hopes to increase membership to 750, and one of the ways is through feedback from successful farmers. One of Koofa’s youngest, and among its few female farmers, Grace Kinyua, 32, decided to grow tea tree out of sheer desperation to provide for her four children aged 16, 14, seven and two. She and her husband James, a retired soldier and itinerant labourer, could hardly afford the daily meals of potatoes and oatmeal.

In 2008, Kinyua visited Koofa members’ farms and attended Earthoil’s organic farming workshops. Convinced that tea tree was a viable crop, she took a loan and purchased 10,000 seedlings.

“My in-laws left us 10 acres of land, and I converted three acres ( to grow tea tree. I drew water from a stream 3km away and transported it on the backs of donkeys,” she says. However, drought destroyed almost half a hectare, and Kinyua barely managed to salvage the remaining crop.

“But I couldn’t give up. We’d have nothing at all if my crops didn’t grow,” she says. “I want my children to finish their schooling and go to university so they can get jobs. I have struggled all my life. I don’t want my children to be like me.”
Kinyua’s initial harvest fetched her Sh21,000. It went towards repaying loans, and to pay for food and uniforms for the children, and a much-needed water tank. Money from her next harvest will go towards rehabilitating the land decimated by the drought.

Another female farmer, Jecinta Watetu, 52, proudly greeted us in her white embroidered dress with matching earrings and shiny black leather shoes. These were the first new pieces of clothing she’d ever bought herself with earnings from tea tree. She shyly added that she’d also indulged in some skin lotion for her work-worn hands.

The sixth child of 10, Watetu did not get an education. Her whole life has been spent in the fields, and she sold cow’s milk for Sh1,000 to Sh2,000 monthly. Most of the money went towards medication for her ailing mother, who died in April.
“I heard about the new crop and I decided to try it out,” Watetu said.

“It took me three years to rehabilitate the land for organic planting by growing maize and legumes that would help regenerate the soil with nitrogen. I lost many crops to drought, but tea tree is hardier.” Watetu’s first harvest of 2,500kg fetched Sh25,000 and her second harvest is expected to be twice as much. Many women have sought her help in starting their own tea tree farms. Watetu has since formed a women’s cooperative with 30 members. They earn additional income by renting out tents and chairs for village celebrations.

From Watetu’s little mud hut, she can look across to her beloved mother’s grave, which she covers with fresh roses daily.
“My life has always revolved around work,” Watetu says. “I am not waiting to get married. I’m determined to be independent and not rely on a husband. I can hire extra hands when it’s harvesting time. My goal is to build a proper timber house for myself to replace my mud hut.”

Her eyes wandered off for a moment. “I just wish my mother could have seen this. It would have made her happy knowing I have a better future ahead.”