While looking into tea growing and production in Africa, I kept coming across the term “smallholder.” To folks here in the U.S. who aren’t totally immersed in the process of growing tea, this term might be a bit puzzling. Never fear, for the answer is right here. Hee!
Just as in farming here in the U.S. ranging from one-man operations to big business, there are big tea gardens (or plantations) and small ones. As the name implies here, smallholders are — well, small! They are usually a family-owned and run farming unit. In countries like Kenya, there is a process ongoing where ownership and working of the land is returning to the people originally from that area, with tea being one of the key crops they turn to for success.
Kambaa, one of the premiere factories in the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA), a state-run corporation, relies on these smallholders to supply the green tea leaves for making black tea. It tends to be a blend of teas from the various smallholders but is all pure Kenyan. (I had a chance to try some Kambaa Estate Kenyan Tea about a year ago and found it great both straight and with some milk and sweetener. Read all about it.)
Smallholders comprise the lion’s share of tea growers in Kenya and have real power in the tea market due to their joint strength under the KTDA. One source states that there are around 400,000 smallholders producing 62% of the tea nationwide, which grew from 18,000 metric tons in 1963 to about 300,000 metric tons in early 2005. Several well-known tea brands, including Barry’s, Lyon’s, and Bewley’s, get the bulk of the tea that goes in their blends from Kenya and these smallholders.
Other African tea growing countries are also relying on these smallholders for a majority of their tea supply: Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Smallholders in Malawi grow tea on plots as small as .04 hectares to as large as 100 hectares (250 acres). The tea production company Eastern Produce buys up a lot of this green leaf tea and processes it into black tea. In Tanzania, an economic downturn along with strict price controls almost destroyed smallholder tea production by the late 1990s, but things turned around when some large tea estates were sold to foreign interests and price controls were loosened.
Smallholders stand tall among such tea heavyweights as Brooke Bond, Unilever, Finlay, and McLeod Russel. Much of this is due to associations like the KTDA and support from tea producers like Eastern Produce. Some tea experts also attribute the rise in general quality of tea from these countries directly to these smallholders.
Just as small businesses are vital to our economy, so are smallholders to tea production and overall quality. Salute!
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