Who Owns the Tea? 28 Nov.

@IFRA 2pm

In this seminar, the two researchers tested their research hypothesis and presented their preliminary findings on the politics of tea in Kenya, and to a broader extent in Rwanda and Burundi. Eric Ndayisaba focused on tea farmer’s appropriations while Chloé Josse Durand exposed the “politricks” of tea in the Kenyan Highlands from colonial times to devolution, based on the case of present-day Nandi County.

Two other speakers, Dr. Edward Ontita (University of Nairobi) and Dr. Patrick Mbataru (Kenyatta University) came to discuss the presentation given by Chloé Josse Durand and Eric Ndayisaba.


A. “Tea Smallholders in East Africa: Farmers’ Appropriations of a Public Policy of Development (Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi)” by Historian Eric Ndayisaba who is a PhD student at Pau University in France in “Les Afriques dans le Monde” (LAM) research centre. He also teaches at ENS-Burundi in Bujumbura. In his work, he uses a historical and comparative approach to study the socio-economic impacts of development public policies on the tea sector’s smallholders of East Africa.

Tea planting became an option for East African smallholders in the 1950’s. The « nationalization » of the tea sector gave rise to an important regional agro-industrial economy, increasing peasants’ income and the rent of East African states; it also induced the growth of private companies and farmers associations.

In Kenya, the turn to independence in the 1950-1960’s boosted smallholder tea farmers. The liberalization of the 2000’s has been seen has the best time for tea farmers and their appropriation of this lucrative sector. Nevertheless, the Kenyan tea sector is still characterized by a large bureaucracy, which prompts farmers to adjust to state and sectoral regulations by playing “tricks”, such as getting involved in informal trade markets, for example.

In Burundi and Rwanda, the “community-oriented” state logic that governed the tea sector, in the 1960’s, contributed to centralization and state monopoly over tea. The neoliberal policies of the 1990-2000’s gave birth to various strategies of appropriation and adaptation by smallholders. In Rwanda, it resulted in privatization and an increase of farmers organizations, while in Burundi, state monopoly made it difficult for farmers organizations to adapt to the strategies of private companies.

The presentation explored the similarities and differences of these three East African countries, for which tea income has become vital over the decades. It also addressed the issues faced by tea smallholders in appropriating tea, which remains mainly a bureaucratic sector controlled by governments, the political and agro-business elites, and private and multinational companies.

B. “Multinationals, Squatters, Politicians: Who Owns the Tea? The New Deal of Devolution in Framing Land Grievances in Nandi County” by Dr Chloé Josse Durand, a Political Scientist and IFRA’s Deputy Director. Formerly a PhD student at “Les Afriques dans le Monde” (LAM) in Science Po Bordeaux (France), she has been working since 2012 on narratives of grievances and local politics in the Nandi region, one of Kenya’s main tea zones alongside Kericho.

Tea is the main source of employment in Nandi County (generated by large scale farmers, tea estates and processing factories), but also an important source of wealth for Kenya, as tea is one of the most valuable cash crops in the country due to its high export value. Since the implementation of devolution in March 2013, negotiations about land and resources are taking place at the county level, nurtured by communities’ long-term constructions of collective narratives of grievances about marginalization from the colonial and central governments, land grabbing, and lack of opportunities for development.
In Nandi, local politicians and community leaders have become increasingly vocal about historical injustices from colonial and post-colonial times. The County government is pushing to have a hand on the tea, claiming the resource should be located in the hands of Nandi residents and local agribusiness elites. The 2013 and the 2017 political campaigns in the County were conducted under the banner of “restoring Nandi glory”, which led to economic initiatives aimed to place the management of the tea business under the County government (such as the setting of an Export Processing Zone to process and export tea locally).

This policy of “autochthony”, related to the scarcity of land in Kenya, is nothing new. Yet it is now embedded in narratives on devolution’s possible gains and the exclusive wealth generated by the large tea plantations. Politically instated tensions between “natives” and “non-natives” in the Rift Valley, and the Highlands have given birth to decades of localized violence during electoral times, reaching a peak in the post-electoral violence of 2007-2008, when many non-Nandi residents were displaced, and their properties taken or destroyed. These tensions might as well be reactivated by a recent survey on the coming expiration of many (colonial-based) title deeds that has been proceeded by the controversial Nandi Constituency re-elected MP Alfred Keter. In May 2018, the National Land Commission came to Nandi County to address 40 claims of historical land injustices (which represent 10% of the total claims in Kenya), that might give a green light to the County as well as individuals to get a hand back on the privately and nationally-owned tea estates in the region.

This fight for “who owns the tea” reflects the stakes of “who owns the land” in the former “White” Highlands and Kenya as a whole. It also gives insight into the power plays between smallholders, large scale farmers and national, international and private companies – multinationals such as Unilever or G. Williamson’s – which are the most powerful investors and the main beneficiaries of the tea sector. By focusing on the new devolved political elite in shaping narratives about historical injustices, this presentation explored the role played by the tea in the reconfiguration of the scales of political power in Kenya, from local to national to global. It also looked at the making of land claims at a county and a grassroot level since the implementation of devolution in Kenya.

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