Located 20 kilometers west of Kericho in Kenya’s rift valley highlands are some of the world’s largest tea estates. The vast, well-tended and lush green tea farms are only interrupted by indigenous and eucalyptus forests, well marked tarmac roads and paved foot paths.
The scene is a complete contrast from the cacophony of endless noise, cars and concrete that is Kericho town, a city of 150,000 located 400 kilometers from the East African country’s capital Nairobi.
Here the air changes from cold to cool with a quiet, calm atmosphere, capturing the orderly environment that is complemented by the breathtaking landscape that completes the picture at the James Finlay Tea Estate.
The estate covers 10,000 hectares and produces 30 million kilos of tea annually. It is one of the biggest tea establishments in the White Highlands. Kericho is home to the Kenya Tea Development Authority and headquarters of Kenya’s large-scale tea farming operations that include Finlay, Williamson and Unilever. It is a region known worldwide for its production of high quality black tea prized for its brightness, appealing color, brisk flavor and fragrant leaves.
“Here we practice sustainable agricultural practices that include soil and water conservation and taking care of the environment, and as such a large part of our land is both indigenous and exotic forests,” says Jane Ndirangu, James Finlay Kenya social responsibility liaison manager.
The valleys of this estate stretch as far as the eye can see. Large tracts of the estate are covered by a canopy of age-old indigenous forests with some hilly, elevated parts under eucalyptus plantations, providing a beautiful landscape. From above the tea plantations look like lawns when viewed against a background of forests (satellite photo at right). The estate has 1,500 hectares of indigenous forests and 2,500 hectares of eucalyptus trees and is self-sufficient with sustainable timber.
“The eucalyptus trees feed into our forestry business that meets the local community’s wood and timber needs, with a portion of being used by our factory for processing” adds Jane.
There are four black tea factories, two tea extract factories and two flower farms at Kericho. Energy requirements are significant, both for electrical power and production of the steam required to manufacture and process tea. Finlays has developed its own site-specific hydroelectric facilities to meet this need. Hydro generates 85% of the estate’s electrical energy. A small combined heat and power (CHP) facility generates 10% of the total electrical power, and another 4 percent is derived from diesel generation, further reducing dependence on the Kenyan grid.
Camellia is the main species grown here and CTC (cut, tear and curl) is the preferred method of processing tea.
James Finlays Kenya is a member of the Rainforest Alliance and holds both Fair Trade and organic certifications. The estate complies with the Ethical Tea Partnership and produces organic compost for use on the farm.
Finlays is known for its black and instant teas of which 95 percent is exported, reaching the world markets of North America and Europe via the weekly auctions at the Mombasa tea auctions. The United Kingdom is Kenya’s largest European export market at 17 percent with Egypt taking 21 percent (93 million kilos in 2010). The balance of 5 percent is sold locally in Kenya where tea is taken three times a day beginning at dawn and frequently after the evening meal.
Established in 1925 and in its early days known as Africa Highlands Produce, the company is now owned by Britain’s John Swire & Sons, Ltd. Production has steadily increased in both Kenya and Finlays Sri Lankan properties to reach 46 million kilograms of tea.
“Put in context, this is the equivalent to just less than half of the tea consumed in Britain every year,” according to Finlays.
The estate’s factories are ISO 22000 certified and produce both green and black tea extracts. The estate employs 14,000 workers with 55,000 dependants, the majority of whom are housed in 11,000 homes on the estate.
To cater for the welfare of the employees and in line with good agricultural practices, Finlays provides families with various on-site amenities, nurseries, schools and medical services to build and foster a strong sense of community. These amenities include a 110-bed hospital, health centers, 13 medical dispensaries, 15 primary schools and one secondary school.
Kenya is seeking to increase the amount of value-added tea, which has doubled in volume to 12 percent of exports in the past two years as the market adapts to consumer demand for flavored, green and ready-to-drink teas, often made from extracts.
Harvest Report: Shipments have declined as much as 25 percent due to drought at the beginning of the growing season, says Kenya Managing Director Sicily Kariuki. Exports topped 441 million kilos in 2010 but are likely to fall to about 330 million in 2011. Kenya produced 399 million kilos in 2010. Exports were higher because of carryover from the previous season.