The vast tea plantation is a blend of purple and green vegetation as it stretches kilometres away.
While the normal green tea occupies the larger part of the 475-acre farm in Kirunguria, Igembe South, Meru County, it is the purple tea that catches the eyes of anyone visiting the plantation for the first time.
The purple tea is on 130 acres, making it one of the biggest farms with the crop since the government approved commercial production of the new variety four years ago.
“The purple tea variety I grow is known as Tea Research Foundation of Kenya 306/1. It has higher medicinal value than green and black tea and its seeds produce oil used elsewhere in cosmetics and the pharmaceutical industries,” says Henry Njeru, the owner of the farm known as Athi Tea Estate.
He adds that the variety fetches three to four times more than what is earned from green and black tea.
Purple tea like green tea takes three years to mature but the former is drought-tolerant.
The green tea, according to him, still occupies a larger part of his farm because he has not been able to get enough purple tea seedlings.
However, what makes Njeru’s farm stand out is not the fact that he grows purple tea.
After having challenges finding market for the purple variety locally because Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA) was not buying the commodity, Njeru established a mini-processing plant on his farm and looked for market abroad.
“We crush the tea at the plant and then pack for export to Japan,” the businessman tells Seeds of Gold.
He harvests about 5,000kg of purple tea leaves from the estate every month.
“We process the tea leaves into what is known in the industry as un-oxidised Crush Tear Curl (CTC)/orthodox (non-fermented), which has higher levels of anthocyanin. This is the purple pigmentation that has numerous health properties,” says Njeru of the business he started in 2012.
The processed tea is then packaged into 10kg and 20kg packs made from aluminium foils and shipped to Shanghai Daning International Tea Co Ltd in Japan.
“Tea is always processed before exporting unlike coffee where you can export green beans. For green tea, KTDA processes on behalf of farmers, for purple tea, I had to do it myself,” says Njeru, who harvests an average of a million kilos of green tea leaves annually, which he sells to Kiegoi KTDA Factory at an average of Sh14 each for the first payment.
Thereafter, he waits for the second payment known as bonus which is calculated per factory. His factory’s bonus was Sh19 a kilo for the year 2013/14.
So how did he secure the market for his purple tea abroad?
“I consulted TRFK, presented my proposal about the overseas market and after lengthy consultations, they allowed me to seek new market in Japan. I travelled to Japan and talked to several companies but ended up with a deal from one. We agreed I process the tea for easy shipment. I am currently targeting the US market, where non-organic foodstuffs are highly valued.”
The farmer sells the purple tea leaves for an average of $30 per kilo (Sh2,730), which is about 10 times the $3 a kilo (Sh275) high quality green tea fetches in the global market, says Njeru, who runs his business under the name Njeru Industries Ltd, where he is the managing director.
PESTS AND DISEASES
To ensure he does not lack quality seedlings for the crop, Njeru has established a purple tea nursery at his home in Meru town where the seedlings are planted before being transferred to the Igembe farm.
“I went into purple tea after my green tea farm was affected by frost, pests and diseases leading to losses. Besides, in the last one year, my revenue from the green tea has declined by more than 30 per cent.”
He sells some of the processed purple tea locally in supermarkets, particularly in Meru.
“To sell the products both locally and abroad, one needs licences from Tea Directorate of Kenya,” says Njeru, who was growing horticultural produce for export before he embraced tea.
“Getting the licences is a rigorous process that involves several regulatory authorities in the tea sectors. It took me a long time to get licences from the Tea Board of Kenya, the Competition Authority of Kenya, Kenya Investment Authority as well as the National Environment Management Authority.”
The challenges he faces in the agribusiness include high establishment costs as tea is capital intensive. “Getting market for purple tea is also a challenge and there is general lack of awareness about the product, which has limited market locally.”
“We have also had numerous dry spells which have lowered production of green tea substantially. With drought comes more pests like Nyambene weevil, however, purple tea is generally resistant to diseases and extreme weather,” he added.
The farmer says he has invested over Sh300 million in the business, part of which went to build the ‘orthodox/oolong’ processing facility for the export market.
Njeru is also investing in an out-growers programme to encourage local farmers to increase their acreage under purple tea.
Currently, his firm is in the process of meeting the ISO: 22,000 certification, organic certifications as well as Fair Trade Certification from the relevant authorities both abroad and locally.
“Tea extract is a high value product compared to the bulky tea leaf in several countries across the world including China, Japan and Pakistan.
Essentially, our processing involves provision of raw material for production of different types of high value tea products,” says the 39-year-old who inherited the business from his father.
Last year, Njeru and his Human Resource Manager Roseline Njoki were at the Nairobi International Trade Fair to promote purple tea.
“The response was good and many farmers are already growing the tea. We have shipped in new machinery for processing the tea to boost our production as demand increases,” says Roseline.
Samson Kamunya, a plant breeder at TRFK, says purple tea can be processed either as un-oxidised CTC/orthodox (non-fermented) or oxidised CTC/ orthodox (fermented).
However, the un-oxidised orthodox has been found to have higher levels of anthocyanin and, therefore, fetches higher prices.
“Local investors should be supported so that the tea industry can register accelerated growth for farmers to get good income,” says Kamunya.
He notes that Japan is among the leading markets of purple tea, where products such as slimming tea are made and sold in North America, South America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, Oceania, Mid East, Eastern Asia and western Europe.
“Purple tea is more potent than green tea. The Japanese and Chinese have discovered its health benefits and are buying in huge quantities the little that is being produced.
Recently, the Japanese discovered a new antioxidant in purple tea that is not in any other tea. We, thus, expect demand to rise.”