The emerald green tea fields at the foot of Mt. Kenya, dotted with pluckers picking leaves by hand, may look idyllic, but the orderly rows of cropped bushes present a growing problem for the farmers who planted them.
Nelson Kibara has been growing tea in the Kerugoya region for 40 years. He said the prices this year have been so low that he has been left with almost no profit at all. To survive, he said, he needs to diversify.
Kibara, along with hundreds of other farmers, has been ripping out some tea bushes to plant a new variety developed by the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya. Its purple-brown leaves produce a purple-tinged liquid when brewed.
Because studies have found the purple tea has greater health benefits than black tea, some say the crop could fetch three or four times the price.
But Kibara says it has not worked out that way.
The market for the tea is unstable, he says, and he is often forced to sell his purple tea for the same price as the green tea leaves.
As he puts it, there simply are not enough buyers willing to pay extra for it.
The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), which represents small-holder farmers, has warned that farmers have started planting purple tea too early.
“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," said KTDA’s Vincent Mwingirwa. "So we are now in a scenario where some of our farmers have planted purple tea, but they do not know where to take it.”
Stephen Mutembei, with the Tea Research Foundation, says although farmers were enthusiastic about embracing the new variety, many have been disappointed.
And the market, he adds, is only on part of the problem.
“There are mixed feelings, I can say that," he said. "The processing techniques have been slow. They have not come up with the special factories, which now can be used to process the purple tea as a special product. The farmers are not very happy about that.”
Cash crop diversification
But Mutembei also says purple tea still has an important role to play, because Kenya needs to find new products to diversify and stabilize its tea industry. Tea is the country’s leading cash crop, Mutembei points out, and right now the economy is overly reliant on the fluctuating prices of black tea alone.
The only way forward at this point, he says, is to convince buyers and consumers that purple tea is worth the money.
“Because farmers have planted already, you cannot tell them to uproot. At this level we should not just say, ‘we do not have a market’ forever,'" he said. "We should be doing something to find a good market.”
In the meantime, Kibara plans to keep his existing crop of purple tea bushes. But if things do not improve, he says will be planting cabbages next year instead.