KERICHO, Kenya — Kenyan tea pickers are destroying machines brought in to replace them during violent protests that highlight the challenge faced by workers as more agribusiness companies rely on automation to cut costs.
At least 10 tea-plucking machines have been torched in multiple flashpoints in the past year, according to local media reports. Recent demonstrations have left one protester dead and several injured, including 23 police officers and farm workers. The Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) estimated the cost of damaged machinery at $1.2 million (170 million Kenyan shillings) after nine machines belonging to Ekaterra, makers of the top-selling tea brand Lipton, were destroyed in May.
In March, a local government taskforce recommended that tea companies in Kericho, the country’s largest tea-growing town, adopt a new 60:40 ratio of mechanized tea harvesting to hand-plucking. The taskforce also wants legislation passed to limit importation of tea harvesting machines. Nicholas Kirui, a member of the taskforce and former CEO of KTGA, told Semafor Africa 30,000 jobs had been lost to mechanization in Kericho county alone over the past decade.
“We did public participation in all the wards and with all the different groups, and the overwhelming sentiment we were hearing was that the machines should go,” Kirui said.
In 2021, Kenya exported tea worth $1.2 billion, making it the third-largest tea exporter globally, behind China and Sri Lanka. Multinationals including Browns Investments, George Williamson and Ekaterra — which was sold by Unilever to a private equity firm in July 2022 — plant on an estimated 200,000 acres in Kericho and have all adopted mechanized harvesting.
Some machines can reportedly replace 100 workers. Ekaterra’s corporate affairs director in Kenya, Sammy Kirui, told Semafor Africa that mechanization was “critical” to the company’s operations and the global competitiveness of Kenyan tea. As the government taskforce established, one machine can bring the cost of harvesting tea down to 3 cents (4 Kenyan shillings) per kilogram from 11 cents (15.32 shillings) per kilogram with hand-plucking.
Analysts partly attribute Kenya’s unemployment rate — the highest in East Africa — to automation in industries, including banking and insurance. Some 13.9% of working age Kenyans (over 16) were out of work or long term unemployed in the final quarter of 2022.
Automation is only going to continue at a breakneck speed, not just in rural Kenya but other sectors in nations across Africa — particularly as artificial intelligence becomes more common. Rage in tea-picking regions could just be an early sign of future tensions if governments and companies don’t find ways to help workers.
The majority of pickers are young, many are women, and they often lack the opportunities and skills to thrive outside the tea sector. Retraining farm workers, as well as creating more jobs and diversifying economies in tea-growing communities, will be key to countering violence and growing anger. “My ministry is keen on opening up the labor market to boost employment opportunities for Kenyans,” Labor Cabinet Secretary Florence Bore said during a trip to Kericho, days after the latest wave of attacks in May. She added that efforts were under way to resolve the dispute between locals and tea companies.
The private sector can also play a role in retraining workers. Kirui told me Ekaterra is keen on partnering with local communities on projects including technical and vocational education and training centers (TVETs).
Mechanization makes business sense for tea producers and they are unlikely to ditch tea-harvesting machines that lower their costs. But the trend is likely to continue hurting rural communities where farm workers are central to economic activity. Workers and residents will continue to oppose these changes because they lack alternative employment options.
The View From China
China is the world’s largest tea exporter. In a paper calling for more efficient mechanization of tea harvesting in China, published in March, Wu Luofa of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at the Jiangxi Academy of Agricultural Science noted that manual tea picking accounts for more than half of the cost of tea production.
“Developing and popularizing tea-picking machines is beneficial to increase labor productivity, reduce labor cost, enhance the market competitiveness of tea products and promote the sustainable development of the tea industry,” he said.
Room for Disagreement
Adopting technology and mechanization is key to unlocking the potential of agriculture across Africa and should therefore be embraced, despite the frustrations of some workers, according to Tabitha Njuguna, managing director of African commodities exchange AFEX in Kenya.
“We find that potential disruptions caused by the integration of technology and mechanization can seem initially threatening, however, it is important for all stakeholders (agricultural organizations, farmers, processors) involved to see these as increasingly imminent and unavoidable,” she told Semafor Africa.
- A BBC documentary in February uncovered widespread sexual harassment and abuse on tea farms in Kericho, with 70 women having been abused by their managers at plantations operated by British companies Unilever and James Finlay.