The use of machines has helped to increase efficiency and quality of work and also helps to reduce on wastage
We have been training and equipping our employees with the knowledge and skill in use of the machines
KERICHO, Kenya: In an interview with Smart Africa Media, Wesley Bosuben, General Manager, Tea Estates at James Finlay (Kenya) Limited based in Kericho, to the west of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, explains why the use of machines in the country’s tea industry remains a milestone that cannot be overemphasized.
Smart Africa Media: Please, highlight some of these new machines and why they are needed in modern day agriculture.
Wesley Bosuben: Mechanization and automation are now commonplace in the Kenya tea industry, as it has in other tea growing countries. Technology is being deployed in the withering and packing sections of the factories, as well as in harvesting and transportation of the green leaf.
Mechanization of agriculture and farming processes connotes the introduction of machines or automatic devices to work on land. The mechanization process has been a long journey. Finlays started with the Two-Man Harvesters and now have the Self-Propelling Harvesters and the Ecolog Fowarders used in forestry.
The use of machines has helped to increase efficiency and quality of work and also helps to reduce on wastage. The standardization leads to uniformity and better coordination of work.
There are a number of reasons why harvesting machines are becoming the norm for the tea industry:
They are more efficient and lead to greater profitability and create goodwill for farmers and organizations with their suppliers and customers on consistency of good quality produce.
Mechanization Increases the Yield of Land Per Unit of Area. As a result of mechanization, farmers and organizations are able to increase their farm yield and therefore obtain more income from the farm.
It encourages large-scale farming. With the use of machines, the work on the farmland is faster and better controlled; therefore making it easier for farmers to engage in Large-Scale farming.
Mechanized farming also reduces the cost of production; therefore enabling key players in the industry to remain sustainable and competitive.
The wider context is that, thanks to rapid wage inflation and declining tea prices, mechanisation is actually critical to the long-term success of the industry. Without mechanisation, the Kenyan tea industry may face existential challenges. But the important point to note is that the move to mechanisation should be a gradual process which has to be carried out in a manner which balances the social aspects with the sustainability of the business.
At Finlays we have been training and equipping our employees with the knowledge and skill in use of the machines. Women are one of the key targets that we have invested in training through our women in technology programmes to ensure that they can be competitive in this space not just while at Finlays but beyond.
Adoption of mechanization in Agriculture in developing countries is slowly gaining acceptability. For agriculture to be completive, there is need to invest and adopt technology. There is also a big opportunity to attract more young people in the agricultural space if technology is available. In the tea sector especially, many young people do not find the practice of hand tea picking very attractive like in the past. However, with the introduction of harvesters, there is an opportunity to attract the youth population to use these technologies in tea harvesting.
Take our readers/audience inside your Kericho facility to briefly explain how tea is harvested and processed using these machines?
First and foremost, field preparation is key to achieving optimal performance of the green leaf harvesters. The objective is to provide easy passage of the machine through well lined tea bushes to establish a firm and neatly trimmed surface that will ensures only soft leaf above the table is harvested. The harvesting is properly timed to establish a regular cycle of harvesting to optimize quality and quantity. There are technical aspects of the machine that have to be set to achieve the finest cut. The harvested leaf is pneumatically delivered to a receptacle at the back of the machine and once filled up the leaf is offloaded on to a waiting truck for delivery to the factory.
At the factory the green leaf is checked for quality and then processed through six stages, namely withering, CTC(Cut, Tear, Curl), oxidation commonly known as fermentation, drying, sorting and grading. This process is simply conversion of green wet leaf into dry sellable black tea by reduction of moisture while allowing controlled bio-chemical process that impart taste and character to take place.
For how long have you used these machines in the country and have they delivered the desired results?
Initial trials commenced in the 1980s, and various solutions have been explored during the intervening years. The most widely used generation of machines have been the two-man-operated machines or two-man-harvester, only recently that the self-propelled harvesters were introduced. The use of the later harvesters ensures minimal handling of the tea leaf and therefore finished product is made to high hygiene standards that meet the requirements of FSSC 22000:2018.
The harvesters are safer to operate and therefore reduce the risk of accidents. They have brought a number of health and safety benefits to our workers who therefore need to do less manual handling.
As earlier mentioned, they have brought about the development of new skills for our employees particularly women who have now embraced the technology, therefore gaining a platform to compete well with their male counterparts.
The machines are gentler to the tea bush hence preserving the morphology and the architecture of the bush frame necessary for consistent yields and quality. The machines are very efficient and able to sustain consistent productivity and fairly easy to maintain.
So far, have you experienced any major challenge using the machines and how best are you addressing them?
As mentioned above mechanisation has broadly been beneficial to our business in helping to drive efficiency, but this is not without any hurdles. Like with the introduction of any new technology, mechanisation of tea has come with a few challenges that we have manged to address over the years.
There is usually a high cost of maintenance of the machines if they have a problem and may sometimes result in prolonged downtime. We continue to work closely with the supplier to ensure technology and skill transfer to improve our speed of response.
There is negative perception in the tea trade that the quality of tea product made from mechanically harvested leaf is inferior despite all the strides that we have made in the improvement of quality. We continue to engage closely with our customers to bring them up to speed on the unique characteristics of out tea products and the consumer safety benefits that come with the minimal handling that associated with automation both in filed and factory.
There have been concerns from the community and staff over job losses. At JFK what we have done and continue to do is; we take the staff we have and train them in the use of the machines. For us, we value our staff and are always looking for opportunities to equip them with skills that can make them completive in the market.
What’s the future of mechanized work and what’s your next frontier?
Mechanisation is the clear direction of travel, not just for the tea industry in Kenya, but for agriculture globally. To date, the tea sector has been slower than most agricultural sectors in modernizing and moving away from manual handling, so there is an element of catch up to play out.
Part of our responsibility as a business is to embrace change in a way that helps to safeguard the future of the tea industry in Kenya, making it truly sustainable for the long-term. That means continuing to look for opportunities to do things better and playing a proactive role in modernising the tea industry and driving it forward.
Thereafter, the next focus is likely to turn to some of the processing machines in the factories which have not changed in decades.
The opportunities for Kenyan tea globally are very exciting – and it’s up to us as an industry to work together to make it as successful as it can be.
Media Outlet Synopsis
Smart Africa Media (https://smartcompany.africa) is a pan-African online media convergence platform, developing to incorporate Television, Newspaper and Podcast, covering the continent’s pro-development and success stories, to inspire investment and growth.
The media house is on the verge of cultivating correspondences and audiences across Africa and the Diaspora, with a strong emphasis on business and economy stories that are positive, constructive, and empowering.
ABOUT THE JOURNALIST
Elvis Mboya, Managing Editor SMART AFRICA MEDIA