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The Joy and Pain of Developing Kenya’s Specialty Tea Production

Tea farmers in Kenya’s central highlands say Chinese interest in their tea is improving their income, but the journey for Chinese tea enthusiast and founder of the Chinya Tea Development Company Lewis Gao has not been easy.

He came to Kenya in 2010 as a tourist and fell in love with Kenyan black tea. Having grown up on a tea farm in Fujian Province, he decided to try out other methods of processing Kenyan tea, apart from the time-honoured crush-tear-curl method popular in most black-tea markets.

“My aim was orthodox tea production which involves plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation or fermentation and drying loose leaf tea using traditional Asian methods,” he says. Soon he brought out experts from China to inspect the soils of tea growing areas and the status of trace elements in Kenyan tea, and satisfied with the results in 2010 he started engaging farmers in the main tea growing regions of the country, including parts of Central Kenya and the Rift Valley.

Lewis Gao, founder of the Chinya Tea Development Company. Photo by Photo by Pauline Kairu.

“The first thing I learnt was that the tea in the Rift Valley would not be ideal for my processing method because the soils are too high in fluoride which gave the tea a tangy flavour,” he says. He settled for the highland tropical climate and volcanic red soils of central Kenya which, he explains, gives the tea its characteristic flavour.

“Apart from the commonly known orthodox teas, we’ve got others like yellow tea, white tea, silver tip tea, purple tea, all of them highly sought-after premium teas,” Gao says.

Newcomers To Kenya’s Tea Sector Face High Barriers To Entry

He set up Gatanga Industries with Zacharia Karanja Kinyanjui, owner of Kiritu tea farm in Kiganjo, Gatura, bringing together their tea processing equipment and technical expertise.

On a good day four tonnes of specialty teas are processed at this factory, exported to China or sold at high-end stores in Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa. The purple tea has become quite popular among Kenyan villagers who frequent the tea shop attached to the factory.

Gatanga Tea Factory in Gitura that process the Chinya tea. Juliah Mwaura an employee of the company runs a company shop up the front selling specialty teas to locals. Photo by Pauline Kairu.

“Registering the company in Kenya came with its share of problems, particularly because individual tea processors are not encouraged to establish such businesses that had until then been strictly dominated by the Kenya Tea Development Agency.”

It took the duo more than seven years before they could get the requisite permits to start production.

Growing Pains Adapting To Chinese Picking Method

On a foggy morning in the rolling countryside green of Central Kenya, Clement Gitaru makes swift sweeping motions over the beds of a tea plantation.

He is one of about 130 tea pickers employed by Kiritu tea farm, about two hours outside Nairobi. In quick repetitious motions, they nip and throw handfuls of the leaves in huge baskets on their backs. Kiritu is one of fifteen farms in the region contracted by Chinya Tea Development Co. to pick tea, together employing close to a thousand tea pickers.

Clement Gitaru a tea picker at the Kiritu tea farm in Gatura, Kenya hard at work. Photo by Pauline Nyambura.

“We have to be very calculating in how we tend to the tree and when we pick the tea,” Lewis Gao says, noting that tea going to Chinya is only picked during the dry months as opposed to the rainy seasons, when he allows the contracted farmers to sell tea leaves to the Kenya Tea Development Agency.

“During the rainy season tea shoots faster, making the tea weaker,” he explains.

Kenyan tea pickers have had to adapt to the company’s particular requirements which some pickers call “staggeringly tedious” and “tiresome”.

Tea Picker: “Feels Like Double Effort To End up With Half the Weight”

“This Chiyna-specific method which involves picking the bud and one or two leaves for the factory, and then prune the third leaf which you throw to the ground as you go to stimulate new shoots, feels like one is putting in double effort only to end up with half the weight of leaves,” says tea picker Scolastic Osiri.

The time-consuming method means that even though Chinya pays a premium price, three to five times the price paid by the Kenya Tea Development Agency, she ends up picking only a fraction of green leaf – much less than she would if she were picking the customary two-leaf and a bud, as required by the Kenya Tea Development Agency.

A tea picker plucks handfuls of tea leaves at the Kiritu tea farm in Gatura, Kenya. Photo by Pauline Nyambura.

For this reason, there have been times when the company has struggled to assemble enough pickers for the day’s work and Kiritu farm has had to turn to tea pickers from other regions of the country, particularly Kisii County in Western Kenya, about 200 miles away. Chinya pays the pickers directly and has had to construct workers’ quarters for them on the farm.  

“At least 95 per cent of the tea pickers are not from around here. The locals felt it was too hard a task managing the tea the way Chinya was asking us to do,” explains farm manager, James Nuthwa.

Introduction of New Tea Varieties Frustrated by Slow Pace of Bureaucracy

Gao points out that even though the selling point for Kenyan tea is that it is organically grown, Kenya’s potential for specialty teas is limited by its five tea tree varieties.

“I have been in discussions for two years with the Kenya Tea Board to be allowed to bring from China more tea tree varieties so as to expand the potential for Kenyan tea.”

Different speciality teas on display for tasting at the factory. Photo by Pauline Nyambura.

He has not been able to ship in the planting material which he has been wanting to trial in the hot and humid climate of the coastal region, ideal for certain specialty teas.  The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service prohibits the importation of tea trees into Kenya, he says, and he’s disappointed by the slow pace at which his request has been handled.

He complains of losing precious time in his many encounters with officialdom and bureaucracy, with processes like obtaining government approvals dragging on for unreasonably long periods.

“I’m really keen on getting some of China’s most famous varieties like tieguan yin traditionally from Fujian, da hong pao from the Wuyi Mountains for processing of oolong tea, as well as one of the world’s most expensive teas pu’er tea that matures with time. I bet they would do very well in Kenya’s central highlands. It’d be interesting to see what flavours they acquire here,” he says.    

Pauline Kairu is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist.

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