Tea Time: A Human Face on Where Your Cup of Tea Comes From

tea time plantation early morning photo

Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

Waking up on our first morning in Kericho we were greeted with a spectacular sunrise and a slightly cool temperature. The journalists involved in the trip to the Lipton Tea Plantation in Kericho were scheduled to do a little tea plucking. When my housemates and I arrived at the designated spot to meet, we found that we were the source of much curiosity and even more amusement for the tea pluckers, as they knew what we were in for.

tea time plucking photo

Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

We were given the requisite presentation on what leaves were and weren't acceptable and the ins and outs of how the plucking is done, how the weight of the tea is measured, even how the tea plants are pruned. During the presentation one journalist asked what the pluckers were paid and the reply was $.10 a kilo. What is the average plucked per day? Somewhere between 35 and 45 kilos. So, about $4.00 a day. All of us Western journalists sucked in our breath. In truth, there is much more importance to this job at Lipton than the daily wage. As Richard Fairburn, Managing Director of Nairobi and the Head Office in Kericho told us, Lipton has 20,000 employees on the plantation and 80,000 dependents.

tea time traditonal plucking basket photo

Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

Each plucker receives free housing, free health care and free education for their children in addition to their wages, all paid for by Lipton. In every aspect of this business, the production of tea is a long term proposition and massively labour intensive. It is crucial to have a healthy, dedicated work force, and Lipton ensures that it does. With the wages and benefits Lipton pluckers make a living which is three times the national average. Both men and women pluck tea and workers must be 18.

tea time weighing tea photo

Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

When I talked to Moto, the man I was paired with to pluck, he told me he had been working at this job for 15 years. He is 42 and until he got this job at the age of 27 he was chronically under or unemployed. He didn't have a family before that because he couldn't afford one. Now he has a wife and four children, all of whom are being educated to go on to something other than tea plucking. I asked him if it was considered a good job and he said most emphatically yes, especially for his children's future. It seems that Moto has this job for as long as we wants it, and Mr. Fairburn mentioned in passing that Lipton gives out annual awards to employees who have reached milestone years with the company.

It's hard work, to be sure. The pluckers walk to work at the beginning and end of each day and they must stand in the blazing sun, or the pouring rain for 8 hours a day or longer during the rainy season when the tea grows quickly. There's not a lot of talking, the pluckers concentrate on what they are doing. Lipton is very specific about what tea is acceptable, so the plucker has to get it right the first time, or go through their baskets and remove the unacceptable leaves. When you watch them from a distance, it doesn't look like they are doing anything because they don't waste any energy moving their bodies, but their hands never stop.

tea time kelly moto tea plucked photo

Photo credit: Natasha Earl

We were told that there was a little competition and at the end of a half hour of plucking our tea would be measured and a winner would be announced at dinner. I don't think any of us realized how seriously our pluckers took this competition. Moto kept saying to me "faster...faster", but then he seemed to give up, realizing he was getting as much speed out of me as he was going to. Ever the amateur gardener, I was weeding as I went, as well as plucking, and of course, talking. At the end of the thirty minutes our tea was weighed and we plucked a measly 1.5 kilos. The winning team plucked 8 kilos and the average was about 2.5 kilos. I may not have contributed to the largest amount, but I was voted the tidiest plucker. Anyone who has seen my house will appreciate the joke.

tea time tea photo

Photo credit: Kelly Rossiter

When I arrived back in Canada and got to the Customs desk, the young woman asked me what my business was in Kenya. When I told her, she reared back on her heels, looking for a fight and said "Okay, I have to know. Do they hire local black people to work?" I replied yes, all of the scientists, doctors, nurses, managers, office staff and tea pluckers are from Kenya, and many are from Kericho originally. They she asked "Are they paid well?" and I told her about the benefits in addition to the wages that the pluckers receive. "That's alright then" she said and stamped my papers.

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