A group of women pick tea leaves at a plantation in Kenya’s tea belt in the Rift Valley, where harvesting has traditionally been done by hand.
This labor-intensive practice is said to ensure the region produces the high-quality tea that is among the country’s top foreign exchange earners.
But now, Kenya's tea-farming industry, the world's third-largest after China and India, is facing job losses after a court ruled in January against a labor union's attempt to ban tea leaf harvesting machines. Workers fear the machines will take their jobs, while tea farm owners say mechanization will make the industry more productive.
Zipporah Onserio, 46, lost her job picking tea leaves because of the harvesting machines.
She says since the big factories brought in the equipment, most of the fields they used to work in have been turned over to machines and tractors. Now people who pick tea by hand are jobless, she said.
Onserio was one of hundreds of employees who lost their jobs at a tea plantation in Kericho, 270 kilometers west of Nairobi.
Kenya Tea Workers Union representative Jared Momanyi says job losses are likely to increase.
“Before the introduction of the machines, in Bomet alone we used to have … over 50,000 employees! As we are talking now, I can tell you the number is around 5,000 to 7,000,” Momanyi said.
Multinational companies in the tea belt have argued in court that the harvesting machines will help cut production costs by more than half, making their product more competitive in the world market.
However, trade unionists say mechanization has a high human cost, with some 10,000 people already laid off even before the court verdict in favor of the tea companies.
For a region that depends on the income from tea workers, community leaders such as Jones Mutai say the impact of greater job losses will be dire.
He says insecurity will become a major problem. The unemployed youths will take out their frustrations on the wealthy, says Mutai, and the wealthy will bear the burden of the entire community.
Despite the possible job losses, the Kenya Tea Growers Association’s CEO Apollo Kiarie says embracing mechanization is the only way to keep the sector alive.
“One machine, its cost of production is about 40% less than if you were to use hand machine in an acre of land. So, you look at it and you see, you [are] able to balance your cost of production, you are able to remain in business, you are able to assure business continuity for the remaining workers who you have in your employment,” Kiarie said.
The association adds that machines will never fully replace the need for human labor in the tea estates.