Favourable weather has boosted East Africa’s tea production in the six months to June this year, even as prices have dropped in the wake of oversupply and enforcement of aflatoxin testing rules last year, which have halved exports to Pakistan, the region’s largest export destination.
The onset of rains drives production in the region, which is mainly supplied by Kenya.
The recent increases in rainfall boosted this year’s crop 17 per cent compared with the 2017 output. However, this excess production has been blamed for a 13 per cent drop in prices at the Mombasa auction over the past month.
Rwandan and Burundi teas fetch higher prices due to their superior quality, compared with Kenya’s, Uganda’s and Tanzania’s.
The quality of tea at the Mombasa auction is determined by different parameters, including the buyer’s perceptions, size of the granules, pricing, leaf appearance, infusion and tasting (and smell, which is done by tea tasters who are experts).
“Quality is gauged differently worldwide,” said the East African Tea Traders Association (Eatta) managing director Edward Mudibo.
“What is regarded as grade 1 — or the best quality — for the UK market may not be the best for Sudan and Somalia. What is perceived to be the lowest quality for Sudan and Somalia certainly may not be the lowest quality for the UK. Quality goes by market.”
There are four main grades based on the size of the granules.
Of the four main grades based on the size of the granules, BP1 (Broken Pekoe 1) is the top most with the largest granules.
According to Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), BP1 is lighter in body but rich in flavour. Pekoe, a term that is used to grade tea, is Chinese for “white down.” It refers to the character of the tender young tea leaves.
“Experts examine the leaf’s appearance, then place it in hot water to see the colour of the liquid. A dull greyish or brown colour is not as good as when the liquid is reddish. Then it is tasted like wine. The leaf should be dark not brownish,” said Eatta trade development manager Brian Ngwiri.
So what makes good tea?
Good weather patterns, soil and best farming practices have worked to the advantage of the tea farmers in Rwanda and Burundi.
These have seen the teas fetch premium prices at the auction.
For Kenya, players in the tea sector are concerned about the decline in quality, blamed climate change, which leads to high temperatures or sometimes drought, frost and hailstorms.
“Rwanda has an advantage over Kenya because farmers grow most of their produce in high altitude areas of up to about 3,000 metres above sea level. Where shoot growth rate and accumulation of chemicals is slower, quality is high. The best temperature for tea production is at around 16 degrees Celsius,” said acting director of the Kenya Tea Research Institute Dr John Bore.
Kenya has also seen the quality of its tea reduce as a result of higher plucking frequency. The region has also seen its weighted average price of tea fall, blamed on the poor storage in factories, farmers underapplying or overapplying fertilisers, plucking standards among other reasons.
“This topic is sensitive, but tea quality is a big concern. For some time now, the quality of Kenyan tea has been steadily declining. The country is losing its position as the producer of the highest quality tea in the world,” said Samuel Otieno, alternative director of Tea Brokers Association.
Currently at the Mombasa tea auction, Kenya’s best quality teas are fetching $3.7, with Rwanda’s fetching $4 per glass.
“In relative terms, we must appreciate the fact that the volumes of Kenyan tea are above 415,700 tonnes as compared with the 15,000 tonnes from Rwanda. If you compare the two you find relatively it is easier for them to work on because of the quantity we are looking at,” said Mr Mudibo.
--Additional reporting by Allan Olingo