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AfricaTea pickers in Kenya are destroying the robots that are replacing them...

Tea pickers in Kenya are destroying the robots that are replacing them in the fields

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Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny - Reporter at The European Times News

Just one machine can replace 100 workers

Kenyan tea pickers destroy machines brought in to replace them in violent protests that highlight the challenge facing workers as more agribusiness companies rely on automation to cut costs, reports Semafor Africa.

According to local media reports, at least 10 tea picking machines have been set on fire during protests over the past year. In the latest demonstrations, one protester was killed and several people were injured, including 23 police officers and farm workers. The Kenya Tea Growers Association (KTGA) estimated the value of the destroyed machinery at $1.2 million after nine machines belonging to Ekaterra, maker of the best-selling Lipton tea brand, were destroyed in May.

In March, a local government task force recommended that tea companies in Kericho, the largest city that hosts many of the country’s tea plantations, adopt a new ratio of 60:40 between mechanized and manual tea picking. The task force also wants legislation to be passed to restrict the importation of tea picking machinery. Nicholas Kirui, a member of the task force and former CEO of KTGA, tells Semafor Africa that in Kericho County alone, 30,000 jobs have been lost to mechanization in the last decade.

“We held public hearings in all the counties and with all the different groups, and the overwhelming opinion we heard was that the machines should go,” Kirui says.

In 2021, Kenya exported $1.2 billion worth of tea, making it the third largest tea exporter in the world, after China and Sri Lanka. Multinational companies including Browns Investments, George Williamson and Ekaterra – which was sold by Unilever to a private equity firm in July 2022 – plant tea on about 200,000 acres in Kericho and have all adopted mechanized harvesting.

Some machines are reported to be able to replace 100 workers. Ekaterra’s director of corporate affairs in Kenya, Sammy Kirui, says mechanization is “critical” to the company’s operations and the global competitiveness of Kenyan tea. As the government task force has found, a machine can reduce the cost of picking tea to 3 cents per kilogram compared to 11 cents per kilogram for hand picking.

Analysts partly attribute Kenya’s unemployment rate – the highest in East Africa – to the automation of industries including banking and insurance. In the last quarter of 2022, about 13.9% of Kenyans of working age (above 16) were unemployed or long-term unemployed.

Automation will only continue to develop at breakneck speed not only in rural Kenya, but also in other sectors of countries in Africa – especially with the spread of artificial intelligence. Anger in tea-picking areas may be just an early sign of future tensions if governments and companies do not find ways to help workers.

The majority of tea pickers are young, many are women, and often lack the opportunities and skills to develop outside the tea sector. Retraining farm workers, as well as creating more jobs and diversifying the economies of tea-growing communities, will be key to countering the violence and growing anger.

“My ministry is committed to opening up the labor market to increase employment opportunities for Kenyans,” Labor Cabinet Secretary Florence Bore said on a trip to Kericho, days after the latest wave of protests in May. She added that efforts are being made to resolve the dispute between local residents and tea companies.

The private sector can also play a role in retraining workers. Kirui shared that Ekaterra is keen to partner with local communities on projects involving technical and vocational education and training centres.

Mechanization makes business sense for tea growers and they are unlikely to give up the tea picking machines that reduce their costs. But the trend is likely to continue to hurt rural communities, where farm workers are central to economic activity. Workers and residents will continue to resist these changes as they have no alternative employment options.

The largest exporter of tea in the world is China. In an article calling for more efficient mechanization of tea picking in China, published in March, Wu Luofa of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at the Jiangxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences notes that manual tea picking represents more than the half of the cost of tea production.

“The development and promotion of tea picking machines is beneficial to increase labor productivity, reduce labor costs, increase the market competitiveness of tea products and promote the sustainable development of the tea industry,” he said.

According to Tabitha Njuguna, managing director of African Commodity Exchange AFEX in Kenya, the introduction of technology and mechanization is key to unlocking the potential of agriculture in Africa and should therefore be embraced despite the discontent of some workers.

“We find that the potential disruptions caused by the integration of technology and mechanization may seem initially threatening, but it is important that all stakeholders (agricultural organizations, farmers, processors) involved see them as increasingly inevitable she tells Semafor Africa.

In February, a BBC documentary revealed widespread sexual harassment and abuse on tea farms in Kericho, with 70 women being abused by their managers on plantations run by British companies Unilever and James Finlay.

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