Kenyan Tea: Why Few Americans Know It and Why That’s a Problem for Kenya

Posted on July 8, 2011

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When I came to Kenya, I had a base level of cognitive awareness that this nation was a massive tea exporter. In terms of total production (indeed, in terms of sheer space for cultivation), it pales in comparison to India and China. But in terms of exports, Kenya is the top exporter of black tea in the world. And the nation has a culture, albeit an imperial remnant, based around the brewing and consumption of tea. It’s on the news, in the papers nearly daily, and almost everyone I know has at least one family member somehow involved in the tea industry. So why is it that I’ve not been exposed to Kenyan teas before? Why are most of the teas I know from America Chinese or Japanese or Indian? Why, in other words, haven’t Kenyan teas and tea cultures made it to the US? Of course, being who I am, I had to find out.

I’ve spent the last few weeks talking to tea farmers, Kenyans, agronomists in Kenya and abroad, and to tea experts and economists around the world. And I think, in a very basic sense, I’ve figured out how the tea market works here. It’s fascinating, and it’s raised some cause for concern for the future of Kenya, of tea, in me. Because I’ve chosen a very strange time to pick up on this puzzle.

Two broad clarifications before I start to ramble on about tea. 1) I intend to write something longer and more professional about this sometime soon. I’m still missing a bit of color, on-the-record evidence, etc. So what I’m going to write here is just a cursory brush of the tea market and situation in Kenya. 2) I’m not particularly enraged by this little story. Kenyan tea isn’t actually spectacular, and even the culture is like every other culinary culture in Kenya: bland. Even Kenyans themselves have acknowledged to me that they suspect their food is the most bland and repetitive in Africa. If you want a good point of reference, look up Ugali (and for those who, like me, need spice to live, cringe). But the blandness of the tea culture here isn’t the cause for the relatively odd distribution and market penetration of tea.

This is, at the surface, a matter of history. Tea did not grow in Kenya until 1904, when seedlings were first taken from northern India to what was then a British Protectorate. While tea had been introduced to Europe via Portugal’s tea-growing colonies in the Azores, and then into Britain through a Portuguese-related Queen in 1660, the drink only really caught on in the late 1700s/early 1800s (explains the relative controversy over rising tea costs and shipments around the time of the Revolutionary War).

But during these initial days of mass tea consumption, right around the time of the Revolutionary War, two different trades were established. The British, via their East India Company, had a chokehold on Indian teas (which were stolen by British agents from China and then replanted at first in India, making India, China, and Japan the three centers capable of supplying tea for the Europeans who didn’t have their own production centers like the Portuguese Azores—interesting flavors there as they grow the tea among jasmine plants for aroma and mallows).

American traders, influenced by Dutch trade routes and traditions in New York and along the coast, as well as other parts of the tea drinking world not under the British flag, continued along the old Dutch-Portuguese routes. Tea was imported mainly from the open markets of China and Japan (well, limited open markets, in part leading to the lesser consumption of tea in America).

But tea is a strange plant—it takes on highly different tastes with each new plant grown, with the time of year, height of the plant leaves are picked form, with the other crops and types of soil and altitude, with the rain and seasons, and with the method of manufacture, processing, and even in the process of boiling and preparing it. It’s a temperamental leaf. As such, to control the flavor, most estates use clones of one plant, not trusting its progeny to produce equal tea. The tea plants in China and Japan yielded a distinct, often softer flavor that did not sit as well with milk and sugar. Thus over years of acculturation, American and non-British Empire palates became accustomed to softer flavors of tea, and even when drinking black teas, to lighter blacks which took less milk and sugar. The British, depending on Indian blacks, like the super-strong Assam variety, developed strains of tea and cultivation that matched the Empire’s developing taste for a heavy, dark black that absorbed massive amounts of milk and sugar.

The Kenyan tea seedlings came from the strong, black stock that, by 1904, the British demanded. Thus Kenyan tea was established as an outlet for supplying a growing British-led, British Empire demand for a strong, strong black tea. The British made the initial investment in transplanting and cloning a plant to produce a consistent and dark tea that would fit their own tastes. That the Kenyans came to enjoy this tea as opposed to a green or oolong or yellow or post-fermented or white or softer black is almost entirely a vestige not of their own demand or culture, but of the demand on them to be a supplier that then began some domestic consumption of its own goods and (in the sad style of most of the colonized) sought to emulate the customs and tastes of its overlords. The British provided the initial machinery and education in cultivation and manufacture as well.

Subsequent production, education, and reliance on old machinery has reinforced these traditions and now almost all tea grown in Kenya is a dark black prepared to produce not unique flavors out of the red earth, but to produce a mass of tea to be flavored with milk and sugar, rather than primarily by the leaf itself. Americans never had much taste for this sort of tea by tradition, and anyway, the market was almost entirely Britain’s. Diversification of markets and of crops doesn’t sit well in a land that is being used as a spigot to flood England with its most popular beverage.

You might think that would change at independence, that local farmers would see the wisdom in diversifying their markets and products. But it didn’t. After independence, the British gave incredibly favorable trade terms to its former colonies, making it far more practical and beneficial for farmers to invest their energies in producing tea for British demand, rather than investing the massive upfront amounts in new tea plants and harvesting methods/education/machinery and spending the time and risk on finding a new market.

There’s benefit for Kenya in that arrangement. Yes, it potentially made them beholden to the markets of Britain. But given the state of the economy at independence, with tea one of the primary sectors of employment and the top export, it was pragmatic to maintain the market. And taking the British trade favors made it financially viable to harvest tea in the old, labor-intensive fashion and to manufacture it with older processes and equipment. It avoided the high cost of reinventing the industry to fit a global market. Plus, the favorable British terms enabled smallholder farmers to subsist comfortably. To this day, only 40 percent of the tea economy is large-scale farms, 60 percent is smallholder. This means that supplying British tastes and ignoring non-British tastes/markets, under trade terms existing and depending on the continued British taste for strong, black teas (and heavy reliance upon Kenya for this tea) to keep the trade terms favorable, extremely beneficial for Kenya. You could even say that the security in markets and politics of Kenya, the relative success of its farmers, in other words the things that allowed it to develop faster and more securely than most other African (even other East African former British colonies) countries was the utilization of the British tea market and the production of a limited and uniform type of tea good for selling in bulk to the British Empire (now to Pakistan and Egypt as well, having adopted some British norms—the main importer is Britain followed far behind by these two others), while ignoring variation in their tea crop, ignoring alternative markets, ignoring the promotion or branding of their crops, and ignoring the fragility of the economy based on that arrangement.

Currently Kenyan tea exports are, as I have said, the highest in the world. They are a uniform, dark black tea, blended together and primarily shipped to the UK. This is one of the single largest sectors in the nation, currently behind floriculture but fast approaching it. It is one of the main employers and breadwinners. In other words, a cup of chai is the lifeblood of the nation.

But that’s come under a bit of fire recently. Back in the early 2000s, the World Bank came along and tisked at the UK for their preferential agreements with their former colonies. The result has been a nearly decade long round of negotiations between the European Union and the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi). The catch to these negotiations is this: while most of the EAC is classified as Least Developed Countries, Kenya is now seen as developing, as stable. Under global trade standards, the UK now wishes to maintain favorable trade relations with every member of the EAC, as they are LDCs, but to drastically change the preferential trade situation for Kenya, away from the favor of Kenyans.

Dilemma: Kenya relies on tea exports to Britain. Exporters themselves will not suffer too badly if the trade equation changes, but farmers will. The new price equation will most likely make it difficult for Kenyans to secure a livable price, will decrease the viability of smallholder farms, will thus not only severely hit the Kenyan economy at a point of political change and tensions, but will also increase unemployment, decrease standards of living, and increase the power of large farm owners and companies, widening a wealth gap over the course of, oh, say, one decade. The results for Kenya’s stability could be disastrous, especially with the already weakening state of the Kenyan Shilling.

No wonder Kenya’s been stalling the negotiations between Europe and East Africa for years, seeking terms the Europeans cannot meet. No wonder this month Mombasa is hosting a tea auction, desperately seeking to draw in and advertise Kenyan teas to global tea consumers. No wonder Kenya wants to piggyback on trends of immigration, on the emergence of a chai drinking culture in America and America’s growing tea market (especially for black teas) with America’s growing multiculturalism (at least culinary). No wonder the Kenyan tea councils are attempting to establish a brand, to obtain a higher price by billing Kenyan teas as a unique blend, as a high quality product. The Kenyans are desperately scrambling to secure a diverse market and to increase the price their teas can fetch through negotiations, marketing, branding, etc. to make up for the shock that will come their way within the next few years (Europe is making it clear they won’t hold back much longer).

But it’s not working too well. Most markets are saturated and simply branding Kenyan teas will not be enough to compete with the very successful Japanese and Indian brand saturation in high-yield markets. They can’t even compete very well with South African rooibos branding. And most importantly, the Kenyan crop remains too distinctly British-oriented to penetrate markets where the palate is still changing, developing, evolving slowly, but still favoring softer, less milk- and sugar-intensive blends.

At the same time, climate change is eating away at the tea production capacity here. It’s quite visible—the rains are clearly changing, the temperatures shifting, and with a sensitive crop like tea, the negative impacts come quickly. By 2050, Kenyans estimate, they could lose up to 42 percent of tea growing areas. The only solution would be to chop down protected forests to make up half of the lost land. And fighting environmental damage with environmental damage is not a fun equation.

The solution might be to diversify the crop to better speak to the demands of alternative markets and focus on creating blends that can be successfully branded and marketed for high prices—high prices that could keep smallholder tea estates alive and maintain the employment and wealth of the nation stable. But as I’ve noted, the cost of new education, machinery, and tea strains is massive. Besides, it takes three years for a newly planted tea farm to even yield its first crop. The initial cost is too high for most farmers. Smallholders would effectively die out in the rush to diversify without high government aid or some angel donor, leading to all the same problems. And the government is in no mood to give, granted that all aid to the drought-stricken areas of the nation has been siphoned into corrupt bank accounts. They’d rather, literally, see Kenyans in rural areas die than fork over high initial sums.

So if they can’t afford the machines outright, what do they do? Eventually a manufacture notices their desperation and acts with all the predation of a capitalist system, offering affordable payments on new machinery, etc. and helping them to weather the transition to a diversified crop/market. But the interest rates and duration will keep Kenyans in servitude and stagnation for at least a decade.

The best hope for Kenyans right now is to appeal to their new friends the Chinese. Oh please give us a grant to diversify the tea market and escape our British conundrum. In exchange, we will, let’s say, give you the contract to build our new infrastructure, which you may place tolls on for a certain number of years. Once again, in the long term, China earns a nice profit, endears itself to Kenya, and builds its own economic power while slightly slowing the growth of one of Africa’s best shots at development and prosperity.

So, that’s why we don’t drink Kenyan teas. And that’s why, for quite some time, we probably won’t. It’s a shit situation all around—for us and for them. And I hope they find a good way out of it. But it was a flimsy organization for a nation’s economy to be built around. And now everyone’s feeling the consequences.

The British Empire never quite died. And the shockwaves of the final fractures of its unholy relationship with its former colonies, well, they will be horrific.

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