REUTERS: Kenya is relaxing some of its tea industry rules to encourage production of new varieties in an effort to boost earnings for farmers of the crop, which is now one of the country’s top hard currency earners.
The East African nation is the world’s leading exporter of black tea, but oversupply and variable weather conditions often lead to global price fluctuations, encouraging diversification into niche varieties such as purple and white tea.
Kenyan tea production is expected to be 430 million kg this year, but just 50,000 kg will be specialty teas, some of which can fetch 10 times more per kg as consumers worldwide have started to gain a taste for different flavours.
Unlike black tea, purple tea is not fermented in processing, and contains anthocyanin and other substances which some experts say have health benefits, such as helping with weight loss. It was developed by Kenyan tea researchers about five years ago.
China still dominates white tea production, but Kenya and other growers are starting cultivation.
Samuel Ogola, the interim head of industry regulator, the Tea Directorate, told Reuters he wanted the share of specialty teas to rise to 10 percent of the total in the next five years.
“We are aggressively promoting specialty teas manufacture and increasing consumer awareness on innovative tea products,” he said, adding rules governing the production of black tea were being eased for the specialty projects.
“We have reduced the acreage required to license a tea factory from 250 hectares to 20 hectares for specialty tea products,” he said.
In the tea-growing region in the Eastern highlands, the family-run Njeru Industries planted 150 acres with purple tea in 2012, seeking to hedge against price fluctuations, leaving 450 acres to grow black tea.
“We thought that to level out the earnings, diversification would be a good strategy,” said Henry Njeru, Managing Director, speaking with a tall glass of purple tea in front of him at his office in Meru town, north of Nairobi.
Njeru produced 10,000 kg of purple tea last year and expects to harvest 15,000 kg this year, selling for US$ 30 per kg, well above the US$ 1-US$ 3.50 per kg fetched by traditional tea. He said he had buyers from Japan to the United States.
The product is also finding local demand.
Yash Shah, an assistant manager at Chandarana Supermarkets in Nairobi, said purple tea accounted for 3.5 percent of its total tea sales, after the chain started stocking it a year ago.
“I would recommend they plant more purple tea, there are so many customers who would like to try new things,” he said.