Two million tea trees earn top dollars for Mount Kenya farmers

More than 500 farmers on the slopes of Mount Kenya are benefitting from the global rise of the $3bn organic essential oil industry, with a $1.8bn project that is seeing individual farmers earn over Sh110,000 a year from tea-tree production.

Earthoil Plantations, a subsidiary of Treatt PLC, is a commercial processing and export company based in Kenya that supplies the global market with oil extracts from the moringa, macadamia, passion fruit and papaya seeds produced by thousands of small-scale farmers in East Africa. It introduced tea tree (Melaleuca Alternifolia) to the Mount Kenya farmers in 2007 through the Kenya Organic Oil Farmers Association (KOOFA).

Since then, farmers have planted over two million trees and are well on the way to reaching their target of four million trees.

A key customer for Kenyan tea-tree oil is the Body Shop International, which contracted the KOOFA farmers as long-term community trade suppliers.

Earthoil selected the Mount Kenya region as the production site for environmental reasons, since other Melaleuca species already grow wild in the area. De-forestation for fuel wood is also a problem that tea-tree planting has helped mitigate.

The tea tree requires few inputs, mainly labour and natural composted fertilisers, and has few problems with pests and disease. Under local conditions, trees have a lifespan of up to 25 years, can be harvested less than twelve months after planting, and provide a new crop every eight to ten months.

The volume of tea tree oil supplied to The Body Shop has steadily grown and reached 1000 kilos between 2009 and 2010. Farmers are paid a ‘fair price’ for their productbased on the costs of production and with an added 10 per cent organic premium.

This is changing the lives of the 540 small scale farmers who cultivate 210 acres of tea trees and Palma Rosa.

In 2010, the farmers earned $1.8m from the production of 330,000 kilos of tea tree leaves, having formed their own Kenya Organic Oil Farmers Association (KOOFA) in 2007 to ensure their collective interests were protected. The earnings and the association have helped them to improve their livelihoods and pay school fees for their children.

“The beauty with this project is that it has allowed me to intercrop the tea tree with traditional crops such as maize, beans, and vegetables, since it doesn’t compete with these crops for nutrients,” said Mugo Ruthi, a farmer who is growing the tea tree oil on his two acres of land.

“They just pick the leaves, so I can use the stem for firewood, besides earning good money,” said Zippy Ndete, another farmer who started off with the project in 2007 and who now owns a posho mill from the proceeds of the tea tree farming, which she uses to mill grains commercially in Naromoru town near Mount Kenya.

According to Wayne Barrat, Earth Oil’s Operation Director, the project has been symbolic of its commitment to achieving a lasting impact in the region.

“We want to create long-term partnerships with producer groups throughout East Africa and to strengthen the natural products industry within East Africa by introducing new crops that have strong markets.  We also wish to increase the capacity of the producer groups so they become experts in the field of essential oil production,” he said.

KOOFA farmers are also now set for further expansion, with Earth Oil having recently entered into an agreement with large US consumer soap manufacturer, SFIC Corporation, for the supply of tea tree oil.

Earth Oil has additionally commissioned an oilseed expeller to increase its pressing capacity, and advance the cold-pressing of sensitive oils. The expeller will allow Earthoil Kenya to extract oil more efficiently and see it equipped to handle both high-capacity conventional pressing or low temperature organic oil extraction. The largest of the five presses in Earthoil’s facility can operate 24 hours a day and handle 20 tonnes of raw products a day to produce 8 tonnes of oil.

Tea tree oil is steam-distilled from Melaleuca Alternifolio leaves, which are native to Australia. Traditionally, the leaves were steeped in water to make a tincture, which is why it is still called a tea to this day. But nowadays, the oil from the leaves is used directly for its medicinal purposes. It is an antibacterial (perfect for pimples), antiviral, antifungal and antiseptic.

The antimicrobial activity in tea tree oil is some eleven times the strength of common phenol, the active ingredient in pharmaceuticals.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter