A section of tea farmers in Mt Kenya region are leading a revolution in the sector that is traditionally controlled by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).
The farmers, largely drawn from Kirinyaga, Nyeri and Murang'a counties, have created parallel cultivation, marketing and export avenues which, if successful, may change the face of the sub-sector.
The farmers are up against KTDA - the agency that manages 560,000 growers countrywide from at least 65 tea factories. Farmers own the factories. Last year, the agency paid farmers Sh78.3 billion, which was a seven per cent drop from the Sh84 billion they earned in 2016.
At the heart of the breakaway is a row on delayed payment, more freedom on land use and differences on how much leaf and a bud to pick. Those breaking away are opting for private factories, cottage industries or selling to brokers.
In Murang'a, 300 farmers who used to deliver their tea to KTDA-run Mutunguru have cut links with the buying centre after their contracts with the agency were cancelled for refusing to sign a leaf supply agreement. Others, however, opted to remain in KTDA.
They are now constructing Kiriti tea factory at a cost of Sh300 million.
"They refused to collect our tea for months, forcing us to look for an alternative market for our produce. We got a private firm in Kiambu," said Kiriti tea factory chairman Charles Kihara.
As they await the construction of their factory, they are delivering their produce to Ngorongo factory in Kiambu and getting a monthly Sh25 per kilo. The private firms mostly pay Sh10 per kilo per year as bonus. KTDA pays Sh15 per month per kilo and two bonus payments per year, which can add up to more than Sh60 per kilo per month.
However, the independent farmers have to incur costs of fertiliser and transport, which is normally taken care of by KTDA. "We also want to avoid the deductions farmers are subjected to. We can unite and take care of logistics by renting vehicles," he said.
He said the farmers took issue with some clauses in their agreement that they should notify the agency whenever they want to sub-divide their land or uproot bushes, which makes succession difficult. But KTDA has argued that sub-division of tea farms is uneconomical.
Similarly, over 300 farmers of the Kangema Tea and Horticulture Group are in the process of establishing a cottage industry after falling out with KTDA.
LEAF SUPPLY CONTRACTS
According to the secretary of the group Charles Gakure, some farmers refused to sign leaf supply contracts over a clause on sub-division of land.
"We ceased being farmers registered at Kanyenyaini tea factory," he said.
In Nyeri, farmers under the umbrella Chai Farmers Association have also applied to form a cottage industry. The group has 500 farmers from different factories in the county and wants the agency to pay them quarterly instead of annually when they receive the main bonus.
When contacted, KTDA chairman Peter Kanyago denied farmers are breaking away from the agency.