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Call for herb farming to meet the rising Herbal Tea demand

The government is encouraging tea producers to get involved in at least 40 per cent value addition of their total produce so that they could get more earnings.

Most factories have therefore been trying to value add their tea by blending and using herbs and flavours in order to produce flavoured and herbal teas.

This has come as a blessing for herbs’ farming, especially the youth who the government has been encouraging through promotion of kitchen gardens to plant herbs.

KETEPA teas infused and made from herbs. Photo by Wangari Ndirangu

James Marete, Kenya Tea Board (KTB) Assistant Director, technical and advisory services says that companies such as Kenya Tea Packers (KETEPA) are using herbs in their value adding teas but the market in the country has not been satisfying them in terms of quality and thus forcing them to import from outside the country.

“There is an opportunity for the local tea farmers to produce the herbs that are used in value addition of teas, and even the production of the herbal teas so that tea growers can also diversify their earnings and make tea business more sustainable,” he said.

Marete who was speaking during a media tour at the KETEPA factory added that instead of the local tea packers importing the herbs, they can buy them from the tea farmers around who can shelve some part of their farm to plant herbs but also source from other farmers all over the country who are farming herbs and spices.

He explained that this could be done in collaboration with other departments in the agriculture sector, and mentioned that the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) has specialists stationed at the Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD) who have the technical knowhow maximize the characteristics that are required in herbs to come up with the quality that the KETEPA requires.

“We have heard from KETEPA that they import because the quality of the herbs they get locally have inferior value or characteristics. In this case we can have the producing companies partnering with other departments in the Ministry of Agriculture to train tea growers and also the youth on how to maximize the quality or even to produce better herbs than the ones that are imported from outside the country,” Marete said.

Head of department at KETEPA John Ngatia said that the consumer preference has continued to evolve over time and the way our mothers used to drink tea is not the same way tea is drunk today.

“We have an emerging young population which are insisting on taking their teas with their preferences at a different level and therefore we have to keep evolving, especially in the tea industry. At KETEPA we pride ourselves as being a beverage company trying to optimize all the opportunities that are available,” he said.

To tap into these changing consumer preferences and also the diversity to have healthy products, Ngatia said that they have gone beyond the black teas and invested heavily into herbal infusion production.

“We have now invested into herbal teas and therefore we are able to expertly blend the natural herbs and present very natural products in the name of the herbal infusions to our customers,” he said.

However, Ngatia confirmed that although they had been sourcing herbs from local markets, feedback from their consumers showed that they needed to enhance their herbs and this saw them scouting for enhancements and getting some of the herbs from outside the country because of the quality.

“Local farmers do not produce enough herbs of the right quality hence prompting us to source for the aromatic plants from countries outside the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region. When using the herbs, one has to be careful as global tea markets are sensitive in terms of food safety”, he added.

He explained that as a company they have been listening keenly to the consumers and their reactions on the herbal teas and this has prompted them to import herbs from Nigeria, Turkey, Morocco and Tanzania and very selectively from the local farmers.

“There is a huge opportunity for local farmers to produce the required herbs that will give pungency and strength as preferred by consumers. At the same time, they will not only earn more income but also help us as a factory to cut on the cost of production,” he said.

Opportunities to grow particular clones of herbs or particular groups of herbs that will give certain quality attributes, he said will be a big plus for the Kenyan farmers and this will in turn see companies to buy and promote the local market.”

Ngatia added that currently KETEPA has been able to penetrate the wider US market and are in discussions with big supermarkets supply chain which has more than 11,000 stores and this avenue Ngatia said will be able to support the farmer by having products availed at the outlets and the dividends that come from that, will also come to help the farmer.

Ruth Munyoro, an agronomist said that herb production is a simple but lucrative farming venture that farmers can engage in as long as they are aware of the ecological zones they are in before planting the herbs.

She named herbs like chives, mint, sage, oregano and parsley than can do well in cold areas while Basil, and thyme can do well in warm areas

The expansion and growth of the herbal products by KETEPA which is 83 per cent owned by the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA) and by extension by around 650,000 farmers, will be able to deliver and the benefits then go back to the farmer.

To date the Government has licensed more than 200 tea packers with KETEPA enjoying 36 per cent of market share of local tea value addition. Value addition of local tea is minimal leasing to most of the crop being exported in bulk to various destinations in the world.  Kenya is the leading exporter of black cut tear and curl (CTC) teas in the world and although highly regarded in terms of quality only 7 per cent is consumed locally.

By Wangari Ndirangu

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