Low Prices Cause Kenyan Farmers to Change Tea Crop

12 November, 2014

Tea farmers in Kenya are suffering because of low prices for their crop this year. So they have exchanged their tea bushes for a healthy new "purple tea" that they hope will sell for a higher price. But there may not be a demand for the new kind of tea.

Agricultural workers in green tea fields near Mt. Kenya are gathering the tea leaves. It is beautiful to see. The rows of tea bushes are straight. All appears to be well. But the farmers who planted the bushes are worried. Nelson Kibara is one of them. He has been growing tea in the Kerugoya area for 40 years.

He says the prices this year have been so low that he has made almost no profit. He says he must grow different kinds of tea if he is to survive.

Low Prices Cause Kenyan Farmers to Change Tea Crop
Nelson Kibara grows purple tea bushes alongside green tea on his farm near Kerugoya, Kenya, Oct. 28, 2014. (Hilary Heuler / VOA)

Mr. Kibara and hundreds of other farmers have been removing some of their tea bushes and planting a new kind of tea developed by the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya. Its leaves are purple and brown. When the tea is boiled, the drink has a purple color. Medical researchers have studied the health benefits of the new tea. They say it is healthier than black tea and could be sold for a price that is three to four times higher than the price of black tea.

But Mr. Kibara says he has not received a higher price for his purple tea crop.

He says the market for the tea is unstable and he is often forced to sell his purple tea for the same price as green tea leaves. He says there are not enough buyers willing to pay more for the purple tea than black tea.

The Kenya Tea Development Agency represents small farmers. It says farmers have planted purple tea before a market has been created for it. Vincent Mwingirwa works at the agency.

"What has happened is that purple tea has been developed for the farm. Unfortunately, there was not concurrent research on the market for purple tea. So we are now in a scenario where some of our farmers have planted purple tea, but they don't know where to take it."

Stephen Mutembei works at the Tea Research Foundation. He says farmers quickly changed from growing black tea to growing purple tea. But he also blames tea leave processors for not making changes more quickly.

"There are mixed feelings, I can say that. The processing techniques have been slow. They have not come up with the specialty factories, which can now be used to process the purple tea as a now a special product. The farmers are not very happy about that."

But Mr. Mutembei says purple tea is an important crop for the country and its tea farmers. He says Kenya needs to find new products like purple tea to help its tea industry become more stable. Tea is the country's top crop. Mr. Mutembei says the country's economy is too closely linked to the changing price of black tea. He says tea buyers and drinkers must be persuaded that they should pay more for purple tea than black tea.

"Because farmers, they have planted already, you cannot tell them to uproot. At this level we should not just say ‘we don't have a market' forever. We should be doing something to find a, a good market."

Mr. Kibara says he will continue growing purple tea plants for now. But if the market does not improve, he will plant cabbages next year.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Correspondent Hilary Heuler reported this story from Kerugoya, Kenya. Christopher Cruise wrote it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in this Story

suffering – n. pain that is caused by injury, illness or loss; physical, mental, or emotional pain

demand – n. the ability and need or desire to buy goods and services

boil – v. to cook (something) in water that is boiling; to heat (a liquid or a container with liquid in it) so that bubbles are formed and rise to the top

benefits – n. a good or helpful result or effect

unstable – adj. not stable, such as likely to change

market – n. the amount of need and desire that people have for a product or service; used to describe how many people want to buy something

persuade – v. to cause (someone) to believe something

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