Getting it right on tea growing economics

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Posted: 15 Apr, 2011
Getting it right on tea growing economics

Rural areas hold the greatest potential for lifting living standards in the country. The majority of Kenya’s population lives here and this is where agriculture is practiced. Agriculture not only provides incomes to rural populations but is also the foundation for agro-based industries that employ millions in urban centres.

The Kenya tea sub-sector has contributed significantly to the redistribution of incomes through creation of new productive capacity in many parts of the country. Tea provides meaningful, all-year-round employment to thousands of farmers. Besides providing livelihood to farmers, it is also a source of employment in tea factories, collection and transport networks all the way to the auction. Tea injects millions of shillings annually into rural areas where alternative opportunities for off-farm employment are few.

It is, however, important to note that productivity is not uniform in the growing regions or from shamba to shamba. Output varies, depending on a host of factors.

Tea production is a function of a combination of several inputs which include land, number of bushes planted and their age, labour availability and its utilization, plucking cycle, proximity to the collection or buying centre, rainfall and soil conditions (fertility and the level of alkalinity or acidity) and general tea husbandry.

Tea husbandry comprises optimum preparation of land before planting, correct spacing of plants, provision of adequate shade/mulch for young tea as well as correct pruning procedures and fertilizer application.

The number of bushes planted and the maturity duration also constitute critical factors in productivity. Research shows that it takes 9-10 years for a tea plant to attain maturity and reach maximum production.

Labour and fertilizer complete the chain of important factors of production. These two constitutes the biggest portion of production costs and their utilization has the greatest impact on productivity. Nitrogenous fertilizers are widely used to increase tea production. Actual utilization, however, differs from one region to another in the small scale sector of the industry with some farmers applying nil and others applying up to 400kg per hectare per year. This has led to both underuse and over-use which has greatly affected farmers’ profit margins. Agronomic and economic optimum for Nitrogen fertilizer has previously been determined for tea under experimental conditions. Besides diminished returns, long-term over-use of Nitrogen fertilizer also causes soil degradation and environmental pollution. 

The challenge in the tea growing areas is to deploy sustainable methods of soil fertility management to curb degradation. The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK) provides recommendations for appropriate fertilizer application and is continuously engaged in seeking for new approaches that can easily be adopted by farmers. Previous approaches have focused on optimizing yield as opposed to maximizing efficient use of the scarce inputs. Ultimately, positive results will be achieved through adoption of a more developed soil fertility management regime targeted at specific clones, considering that different clones have unique fertilizer requirements for improved productivity and better returns.
While farmers require continuous sensitization on appropriate and efficient methods of production, it is important to note that careful nurturing of the young tea plant is critical as a basic requirement.

The potential of efficiency starts in the pre-planting phase and continues right through to the plucking phase. The importance of management in tea operations has been consistency stressed. Several avenues for improving farmers’ welfare that target maximization of returns from tea enterprise exist. The factors that may be targeted for improved returns of tea enterprises include improved tea productivity, maximizing on productivity of available household labour, and improved green tea prices. The latter, though, is an external variable when it comes to analysis of tea economics.

Farm enterprises can diversify to maximize on resource use. Tea growers need to increase investment in their tea to achieve high productivity resulting in improved earning. This will in turn improve household welfare. Another option is to increase acreage under tea although this may not be applicable where land sizes have shrunk. Tea farm productivity could also be improved through adoption of high yielding cultivars and recommended tea management practices.

Rational enterprise selection is very important. Tea is known to react negatively to environmental stress. It is therefore important for a farmer to carefully consider the suitability of a specific plot for tea growing. Tea does very poorly in marginal areas. The famous “brown” line should be observed by tea growers because this clearly marks areas within which tea does well with minimal environmental stress. With global warming the brown line will continue to shrink in lower zones and expand to formerly higher zones traditionally not recommended for tea, a caution here because frost bites are known to cause disastrous effects to tea grown in high altitudes.

Farmers should seek technical advice from tea experts before planting tea in areas outside the brown line where other enterprises would perform better. Agricultural experts can identify these enterprises according to productivity and profitability.


By Kiprono Paul, Socio-Economist,

Tea Research Foundation of Kenya