Learning from Kenya: Ugandan Tea Farmers Aim to Improve

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On May 21, 2024, International Tea Day was celebrated with great enthusiasm at the Nandi Bears Club grounds in Nandi County, Kenya. The event attracted a diverse group of participants, including government officials from various African nations such as Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique.Over 30 tea farmers from Uganda attended the event to learn from Kenya’s progress in tea quality and the cultivation of specialty teas.

Alex Amanya, the Senior Project Manager at Solidaridad East and Central Africa in charge of tea, highlighted the numerous learning opportunities available for Ugandan farmers. He emphasized that Ugandan farmers could greatly benefit from adopting Kenya’s practices in quality improvement and organization.

“Ugandan farmers have significant opportunities to learn from Kenya, especially in terms of quality and organization,” Amanya stated. He pointed out that embracing specialty teas like green and purple varieties could significantly increase farmers’ earnings.

George Omuga, Managing Director of the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA), supported this view. He urged farmers to adopt green and specialty teas, which can generate ten times more income than traditional black tea. “Embracing these high-value tea varieties can revolutionize the tea industry in East Africa,” Omuga added.

Uganda’s tea industry, once the second-largest foreign exchange earner, contributing over $150 million annually, has now fallen to fifth place. Amanya urged the Ugandan government to follow Kenya’s lead in promoting tea cultivation and value addition. He stressed the importance of government support in helping farmers transition to high-value tea products, which could be grown at a cottage level and command higher market prices.

Amanya also noted the potential for exporting green and specialty teas to China and the European Union. He called for enhanced research into new tea trends and the development of specialty teas, pointing out that some of Uganda’s tea planting materials date back to 1937. “There is an urgent need for research and funding to rehabilitate old tea gardens and introduce improved varieties,” said Edgar Araali Tabaro, a tea farmer from Kabarole district.

The celebration of International Tea Day was just one part of a broader effort to improve the tea industry in Uganda and East Africa. The tea industry is also preparing for the first African Specialty Tea Conference, scheduled to take place in Kenya on May 22-23, 2024. Organized by the Purple and Specialty Tea Association of Kenya (PSTAK), this two-day event will feature international tea experts and bring together farmers from across Africa to discuss and exhibit specialty teas.

Amanya emphasized the importance of supporting cottage farmers to produce diverse tea products like green tea, orthodox tea, and white tea. These efforts, coupled with traceability and carbon-neutral production systems, would bolster environmental sustainability while supporting social sustainability through the involvement of women and youth farmers. “Our fertile soils and favorable climate allow us to produce organic tea with minimal pesticide use, which can appeal to the Chinese market, especially for green and orthodox teas,” he said.

However, Amanya stressed the necessity of government backing for small-scale farmers, including investments in the production and marketing of teas to Europe through bilateral agreements.

The global tea market has been affected by a significant drop in demand due to political and economic crises in major tea-consuming countries. Gregory Mugabe, the chairperson of the Uganda Tea Association (UTA), recently noted that conflicts in Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Palestine, and Sudan, along with economic crises in Pakistan and Egypt, have led to a decline in tea exports. These countries, key importers of black tea from East Africa, are currently unable to pay for tea due to foreign exchange shortages.

UTA statistics reveal that over 33 percent of teas offered weekly at the Mombasa tea auction remain unsold. Uganda, contributing only 10-15 percent of the teas at the auction, has seen its tea prices plummet to historic lows. “Most factories sell their tea at prices less than $1 per kilogram, the worst price in Uganda’s history,” Mugabe lamented.

The tea sector in Uganda and broader East Africa has traditionally focused on producing black CTC tea, primarily for the European market. However, as European consumers increasingly demand sustainably produced products, the sector has struggled to adapt. Increased black tea production in Kenya and Uganda, amid falling demand, has exacerbated the crisis.

Amanya pointed out the need for the tea sector to realign with global market trends. “We must recapture the lucrative European and North American markets by meeting their sustainability and impact requirements,” he said. This includes supporting cottage and specialty tea businesses to produce diverse tea products, thereby enhancing environmental and social sustainability.

The post-COVID era has seen renewed demand for healthy products, and tea, being a health-promoting beverage, stands to benefit. However, realizing this potential requires concerted efforts to innovate and adapt to changing market dynamics.

As International Tea Day celebrations continue, the focus remains on learning and collaboration. By sharing knowledge and experiences, East African countries can strengthen their tea industries and secure a prosperous future for their farmers.

History of International Tea Day

International Tea Day has two different origins. The first International Tea Day was launched in 2005 by trade unions, small tea growers, and civil society organizations in Asia and Africa to address the issues of living wages for workers and fair prices for small tea producers. The second International Tea Day, celebrated on May 21, was proposed by tea-producing nations at the World Tea Conference to commemorate the signing of the First International Tea Agreement in 2005.

Victoria B. Ashabahebwa, Director of Swazi Highland Tea Co Ltd, highlighted the socio-economic significance of tea worldwide. She emphasized that the day promotes sustainable development in the tea sector and honors the farmers and families who depend on this industry. “We celebrate the role tea plays in hospitality; there is no better welcome than a cup of tea. We celebrate tea, the comforting companion, and create awareness to promote consumption and healthy living,” she said.

By focusing on sustainable practices and adapting to new market demands, Uganda and other East African countries can strengthen their tea industries and ensure a better future for their farmers.

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