News / Africa

Timeless Mombasa Tea Institution Prepares Itself for Change

Etiquette in the auction room is strict, with ties required for brokers and collared shirts for buyers, at the Mombasa Tea Auction in Mombasa, Kenya, February 14, 2012.
Etiquette in the auction room is strict, with ties required for brokers and collared shirts for buyers, at the Mombasa Tea Auction in Mombasa, Kenya, February 14, 2012.

The weekly tea auction in Mombasa, Kenya, is one of the largest black tea auctions in the world, where etiquette and old-world manners still reign. Planned modernization, however, promises to turn tradition on its head.

Every Monday and Tuesday, around 80 brokers and buyers gather together in an elegant colonial building in Mombasa to haggle, every so graciously, over the price of tea. This is the Mombasa Tea Auction, a genteel old institution dating back to colonial times.

The tea auction may look old-fashioned, but each year it manages to move around 345 million kilos of black tea from nine countries. This makes it the largest black tea auction center in the world, according to Peter Kimanga, chairman of the East African Tea Trade Association.

The rules of etiquette are strict - neckties for the brokers, even in the stifling Mombasa heat, and smart collared shirts for the buyers. In the auction room, men address one another as “sir,” and despite the absence of microphones, you rarely hear anyone raise their voice.  Geoffrey Rimbere, manager of the auction house, explains why.

“Every year we have workshop on etiquette and decorum in the auction room. You can’t use language which is not acceptable there, or behave in a manner which is abnormal. That’s the culture up here. You cannot use unfriendly language. Even if you don’t get the kitty, you still have manners,” said Rimbere.

Kenya’s tea industry dates back to 1903, and 62 percent of the tea is grown by small-scale farmers. The auction still has a decidedly old-world feel to it. But well-mannered as it is, the tea moves fast, selling at around five lots a minute, and the buyers watch one another like hawks.

But all of this is about to change, as the Mombasa Tea Auction prepares to go online by 2013. The old open outcry system will be replaced by electronic auction at which buyers will bid from their computers, never interacting with one another at all.

Rimbere explains that the switch is necessary to keep up in a fast-moving industry. An online system will streamline things, he said, allowing brokers to move more tea faster and cutting down on warehousing costs.

Still, not everyone is convinced that this change is for the best. Many of the buyers themselves, such as Aweys Mohamed, are skeptical that Mombasa has the infrastructure necessary to make an e-auction work, and are afraid of the effect it will have on the local economy.

"The Internet connection in this country is very bad - the bandwidth is not that good. What happens when you are bidding some tea and suddenly your connection went down? What happens to some of the clients? They can bid from anywhere. What happens to the interests of the local companies who are employing local people here to handle all of that?" asks Mohamed.

Across the street from the auction house, in a venerable old building, sits Africa Tea Brokers, the largest brokerage in Kenya. Its director, Tom Muchura, tastes hundreds of teas every week, noting the taste, color and strength of each one before they go to auction.

“You’re taking something into your palate by sucking it in. Then you swirl it around your mouth so that is does go into the areas where it will be tasted, and then you spit it. You probably see us tasting in excess of 250 cup[s] at any go, and one is able to actually pick the difference between each and every cup,” said Muchura.

Muchura has been working at Africa Tea Brokers for more than 40 years, and the e-auction is not the most significant change he has seen.  The industry itself has exploded in East Africa, he said, and demand is on the rise, particularly in Muslim countries.

But, he said, the electronic auction system definitely will change the way brokers and buyers interact. An important psychological element will be lost, he said, but it is a transition that most probably is inevitable.

“By nature I’m conservative, and I’ve known the tea industry in that form all my life. As a broker, I am able to tell whether a buyer has probably an extra cent or so, because I can see him, I can see his body language," said Muchura. "It’s very easy also for buyers in the auditorium to know who is buying and be able to say, look, this is a buyer I can actually push, or this is a buyer I cannot push. That physical presence is important. And yes, we will miss the way we have operated in the past. But I think because of the volumes that we are having to trade with, it is only natural that this change comes about.”

With more than 50 percent of the e-auction system already in place, there is little doubt that change is on its way. And although Mombasa’s old traditions are on the way out, East African tea definitely seems to be on the way up.

You May Like

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

Research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities, and Christians are facing persecution in a growing number of countries in the region More

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

Label points to collective achievement, but some say it triggers resentment, unrealistic expectations More

Iran Bolsters Surveillance of Phones, Internet

Does increased monitoring suggest the government is nervous? More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Polish Ghetto

When the Nazi army moved into the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid