After Malawi, we keep exploring East Africa and the Rift Valley. In Tanzania, we decided to take a tea break and to enjoy a bit of sea side at Zanzibar, some trekking on Mount Kilimanjaro and of course couple of days of Safari in Serengeti.

Karibu Kenya !

When we finally cross the Kenyan border, we are looking forward to discover this important country for the tea market. We already now couple of data points but there is much more to learn: 3rd tea producer in the world but 1st exporter. Kenya is THE country for CTC black tea (Crushing, Tearing and Curling).

Did you know?

Tea was brought into Kenya not earlier than 100 years ago by the British. They started in 1903 closed to Nairobi by importing Camelia Assamica bushes from India. Tea plantations were then spread out in Kericho region around 1922. Studies showed that the tea industry support almost 12% of the country population. Tea is the first source of currencies before flowers and tourism.

We take a bus to reach the western part of Kenya closed to the Ouganda border and Lake Victoria. We stop in the city of Kericho which one the biggest tea region in Kenya. This is also where we will be able to visit the KAPSET factory.

As we normally do, we got in touch prior to our arrival with factories, tea producers and tea plantations. We sent dozen of emails but unfortunately it was quite hard to get positive answer. But big surprise: right before arriving in Kenya, KTDA (Kenya Tea Development Agency) confirmed that they agreed to welcome us to visit their KAPSET factory and to meet the Factory Unit Manager, Peter Munialo.

The day after, we explore the Kericho area and hunt for a very nice scenery of Kenyan tea fields. Couple of hundred meters outside of the city and we are already surrounded endless tea fields… Green is everywhere and cover the hills until the horizon. After Malawi where the fields were quite messy, we are amazed by the order here in Kenya. The pruning is perfect and the fields are clearly marked out.

An unexpected encounter

We decide to start walking among the green hills but we are quickly facing a security station with fences. 2 employees with Unilever caps stopped us: private property! We are not allowed to go further in the fields without the head office authorization. A sign is showing “Lipton Tea Gardens”. Here we are! We knew already that Lipton produces tea in Kenya but we did not where exactly. Everything here is well guarded. Unilever is really taking care of its brands image. While we are leaving, we are over flown by a little plane which is quite low in altitude. It does take us too long to realize that it is actually spilling fertilizers and chemicals over the tea bushes. Important company… important means !

After this unexpected encounter, we find another area of tea fields with no fence nor security guards. Two men are actually plucking tea with a machine (similar to a big mower). It seems quite efficient but the counterpart is that the selection cannot be done properly… The machine is cutting both young leaves and bigger leaves. It is the first time that the Tea Travelers duo is facing a mechanic work in the tea fields.

Kapset adventure

One day later, we have a meeting with Peter Munalio in the KTDA Kapset factory. It is actually quite far so we take a local overloaded minibus to Litein (i.e. matatu) followed by 40 mins of mototaxis in the countryside on a very bumpy road. We meet couple of farmers on the way, very surprised to see two Mzungu (i.e. white people in Swahili) in a such remote area of Kenya.

At the factory gate, the security guard welcomes us and escorts to the FUM office (Factory Unit Manager). Mr. Munialo welcomes us in Kapset Factory with a enthousiast smile and starts to explain us everything about KTDA and Kapset. The factory is quite new as it was built in 1981.

Did you know?

KTDA is the biggest tea cooperative in the world. It was founded in 1963 right after Kenya independence and its governance is quite unique: tea farmers who are KTDA members sell their harvest to the cooperative whom they are also shareholders. KTDA represents around 500,000 farmers across Kenya. Thanks to a series of local election process, KTDA is managed by a Board of Directors which translates the will of its members. The cooperative itself hires employees in the different factories such as factory managers, production leader, clerk, IT manager or supply chain expert. Thus, the company standards are correctly applied by the entire structure and allow same quality across the factories. KTDA fixes the fresh tea leaves price by kg every year (which is the same for everyone) but they will send share the annual benefits with the farmers at the end of the year. KTDA produces 60% of the Kenyan tea.

First steps in the CTC process

After this very interesting first discussion, we meet Jackson, the production manager. He is in charge of showing us the different processes of the production from collecting the leaves to packaging. Before leaving, we need to get dress : cap for Bastien, mob cap for Elodie and white overall for both of us. To better understand the different steps, Jackson starts with the reception of fresh leaves from the trucks.

Did you know?

Farmers sell their leaves at a fixed price to the factory for the entire year and at the end of the year they also receive their part of the total benefits of KTDA. It has special conditions for its members. The farm should have at least 875 bushes, the plucking should only include the bud and two leaves. Kapset factory has bought 21 million tons of fresh leaves last year.

We arrive at the right time when the trucks have started to deliver the fresh tea leaves coming straight from the plantation. The bags are weighted and then place on the monorail ready to start the first step of the process: withering! In a big room, the leaves are spread out on ventilated racks. Aim? Reduce the moisture to a very specific percentage. Everything is controlled by machine. Once it is done, the leaves are sent to the second phase : the CTC process.

The leaves are firstly crushed, then teared (3x) and curled. The same machine is doing these 3 actions. Kapset has got 3 of them which can be quite useful during the peak season between April and December.

The outcome creates a very smooth green carpet. On the conveyor belt, the small tea balls are going to the next phase which is fermentation. Thanks to a very precised speed of the conveyor belt and an appropriate warming system, the oxidation process is completed after 90 mins. The green carpet is now a dark copper carpet. The tea balls are now ready for the last phase: drying ! 3 big dryer will reduce the moisture to its minimum in 25 mns.

At the end, the tea is subdued and passed through electrostatic rollers to remove unappropriate remains. Last but not least, the machine sorts out the tea balls by size category. Thus, 4 different types are processed by Kapset Factory everyday:
– Broken Pekoe 1 => Best quality
– Pekoe Flowery 1
– Pekoe Dust
– Dust 1

All the teas are packed by grade under the KTDA label and then trucks collect it to deliver them to Mombasa auction market. Kapset has its own brokers who will try to maximize the price while selling the tea to big international firms. Even companies such as Unilever buy the production of Kapset because they sometimes need extra production when the demand is too high. Buyers are coming from all over the world : the UK, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Afghanistan, Russia…etc.

But let’s come back to our factory. We are now introduced to the testing room (i.e. the “quality control room”) Here, factory employees test and test again the production (once every hour) to make sure there is absolutely no deviation from standard expectations. Only by testing, they can figure out if there is a problem with moisture level, drying conditions or oxidation speed.

Q&A session

After this very interesting tour in the factory, we are now back in Mr Munialo office. We start talking about his career path (he started in Unilever and then joined KTDA) but also on lots of different topics, from Kenyan politics to education, economy, terrorism… They do not forget to mention our new president but all the more the age of his wife. It is definitely a recurrent topic with local people during our trip in Africa ! It is now time to leave the team from Kapset factory but we promise to stay in touch. We take a matatu with our black tea sample and better knowledge, both as gift from the team.

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