Follow the Frog Week: The Story of One Kenyan FarmerSeptember 18, 2012
On a recent trip to Kenya, the Rainforest Alliance’s own Stuart Singleton-White had an opportunity to visit a number of Rainforest Alliance Certified™ tea farms. Here, in a special Follow the Frog Week guest post, he reflects on the experience…
Driving out of Nairobi, we slowly weave through the bustle and fumes of the capital’s traffic. The roads are chaotic and it’s not an organized chaos. In Kenya, most of the traffic controls, road signs and other rules of the road are considered (at best) advisory — more often, they are viewed with mild indifference as drivers rush from one part of the city to another. Heading north on the new eight-lane highways, we leave Nairobi and move toward Kenya’s countryside.
Slowly, the ribbon development which marks the expansion of one of Africa’s most dynamic and booming cities gives way to open plains and a view of the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains. An hour out of Nairobi, we turn off the main highway and begin to climb those foothills. Rising steadily, the roads become narrower and more winding, almost in direct proportion to the altitude we have reached. Finally, we come to the end of the developed road and continue our assent into the mountains on unmade tracks .
It is here — after three hours of bumps, twists and turns — that we finally reach the tea gardens high in the mountains north of Nairobi, nestled on the eastern slopes of the Great Rift Valley. The land is a lush and verdant carpet of tea gardens, dotted with small houses in clearings. Livestock and other crops, such as bananas and maize, add variety and changes of color and scale to the scene. Stands of trees, both eucalyptus and native, spread out across the hillsides and down the valleys, giving the area a pastoral appearance.
But this isn’t a landscape of large tea estates. Each of these small houses represents a farm and is home to one of more than 500,000 smallholder farmers who are part of the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA). The KTDA – which has been working with the Rainforest Alliance since 2006 — aims to have all of its members Rainforest Alliance Certified by 2014. This is the biggest endeavor in the history of voluntary certification.
Leaving the unmade road behind us, we walk down a small track for a few hundred meters, past a couple of small tea farms, to meet 64-year-old Charles Gachao and his wife Grace. Charles’ farm, like most of the farms in this area of the Aberdare Mountains, covers less than two acres (one hectare) of land. Since 2007, Charles has been working with the Rainforest Alliance – a collaboration that has made a big difference to him and his family. “We are grateful for what the Rainforest Alliance has given us and we are grateful for what this has left us to work with,” he tells me. “Our Rainforest Alliance trainer taught us how to use agrochemicals properly. We never knew what we were doing before.”
There is very little need to use agrochemicals for tea production in Kenya, where the crop is rain fed and mostly free of pests and diseases. When farmers like Charles begin to better prune their tea bushes and recycle and compost organic waste, they learn to maintain their soil fertility without excessive artificial fertilizers.
Another important element of the Rainforest Alliance system is crop diversification. Alongside his tea, Charles grows maize and bananas, which he is able to sell at the local market. The Rainforest Alliance has helped him to minimize agrochemical use and taught him the importance of using proper protective equipment and storing chemicals safely.
Charles has also planted native trees to provide shade on his farm and improve habitat for wildlife. With the introduction of improved terracing and the use of native grasses to help bind the soil together and provide feed for his cow and goats, Charles is managing his soil better. He’s also improved his waste management — he is now separating organic waste from nonorganic waste and wastewater from his clean water supply.
Charles sells his tea to the local KTDA Ngere tea factory, which takes in “green” (or unprocessed) tea from 8,200 farmers who farm around 7,400 acres (3,000 hectares) of tea lands. The factory employs 300 people who turn the green tea leaves into the black tea we are so familiar with. It takes five kilos of green tea to produce one kilo of black tea and the factory produces 470 thousand kilos of black tea a year. Being part of the KTDA means that the farmers who supply the Ngere factory are also shareholders of that factory. They receive about 81 percent of the profits made by the factory in any one year, as well as a per kilo payment for the tea they supply. And the tea the factory sells as Rainforest Alliance Certified currently attracts a premium of around 10 cents per kilo.
“Thanks to the Rainforest Alliance, we now have riches,” beams Charles. “We have been shown that if we work the land and our resources correctly then we can make money and live healthily and well. And we continue to strive to improve.” Charles is a trainer of other farmers and is using the skills and knowledge he has learned by working with the Rainforest Alliance on a voluntary basis to help his community. “People learn best when they are enjoying themselves,” says Charles. “Whenever I meet with our group of farmers we always start and end the session with a song. It puts us all in the right mood!” As we say our goodbyes to Charles, Grace and the other farmers we’ve met, they gather around to give us a gift of pure joy and lasting value: a song.