Tea: good prospects from great heights

Tea: good prospects from great heights

KARO-RW-68.jpg03 December | 2019

Private and public stakeholders in the Rwandan tea sector join forces to empower rural farmers – helped with finance from Oikocredit. That’s just my cup of tea.

By Helmut Pojunke, Oikocredit Westdeutscher Förderkreis

Even just a short stay in Rwanda leaves an impression that is as powerful as it is refreshingly positive. Kigali, the country’s capital, welcomes travellers with clean streets, lively markets and neat residential quarters, even in the suburbs.

On the other hand, the “Land of a Thousand Hills” only ranks 158th out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index 2017. Also, according to World Bank figures, Rwanda is among the “least developed countries” in terms of economic power, with a per capita gross domestic product of just US$ 703 (2016). This is a contradiction to my first impression.

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Be that as it may: an infectious spirit of optimism permeated the discussions that I and my colleagues from Oikocredit International and Oikocredit Kenya had with people in Rwanda in early July. Among the various places we visited were the Karongi Tea Factory and Katecogro cooperative in the west of the country.

Cooperatives strengthen producers

Bernadette Nyiraneza warmly welcomes us in her small office at the Katecogro cooperative, which supplies Oikocredit partner Karongi Tea Factory with tea leaves. Bernadette has been managing director of the cooperative since its creation in 2010, heading a team of 18 staff.

Organised into a cooperative, farmers are in a much better negotiating position with the tea factories. Also, they organise the transport jointly. Nine technicians check the quality of the tea leaves delivered to the cooperative, while an agricultural specialist makes sure that all training requirements are met, prepares and monitors harvest plans, and ensures good agricultural practice in plant care and weed control. The cooperative has Rainforest Alliance Certified accreditation.

It’s clear that Bernadette is proud that the cooperative has developed so strongly: the cooperative has grown from roughly 720 founding members to more than 2,000 farmer-members today.

What’s more, there is a long waiting list of prospective farmers who want to start growing tea. The cooperative’s greatest challenge therefore is to supply its members with enough tea plants, which are not only necessary for new plantations but are also needed to rejuvenate existing ones. Approximately ten percent of tea plants have to be replaced each year. While the cooperative is already producing some 300,000 plants per year as part of a joint project with the Karongi Tea Factory, this is barely enough to maintain the existing plantations.

Regular income as a basis for change

The positive implications of tea cultivation for this remote region are clearly visible: it was only after the Karongi Tea Factory started its operations that the region was connected to both the electrical grid and the road network.

Tea growing provides farmers with a regular source of income, as tea can be harvested at intervals of 10 to 14 days. On one hectare, a tea grower can generate an annual income of 500,000 Rwanda franc (€ 490) after costs. Combined with the ability to grow their own food, a family can make its living from tea cultivation and enable their children to pursue higher education.

Bernadette Nyiraneza stresses the importance of the regular nature of these earnings. As the payments are made via a state regulated system of small regional banks (SACCO), farmers can build up a good credit rating and are able to take on larger projects, such as buying a motorbike, investing in tea plantations or purchasing land.

However, cooperative solidarity has its limits. As a consequence of climate change, dry spells are getting longer and rainfall more intense. Only recently, 18 members of the cooperative lost everything in a landslide, and at present the cooperative is unable to compensate them for their losses.

Local tea production as a family business

First, the tea leaves are dried at the Karongi Tea Factory. The following day, the leaves are processed using the “crush-tear-curl” process. During the production process, the leaves are cut, fermented, dried and sorted according to quality.

As there is plenty of space in the factory, the plan is to increase capacity by installing another production line in the near future. There are around 50 staff per shift working in the factory.

The Karongi Tea Factory is owned by the Mutangana family who live in Kigali. Two of the founder’s children, Josiane and David Mutangana, are now also involved in managing the company. That said, the 80-year founder, Jean-Baptiste Mutangana is still watching over his life’s work.

When asked what motivates him, he replied: “During the genocide of 1994, many of my relatives were murdered. I wanted to give the fallow land a new significance, a new purpose. So, President Paul Kagame’s call to contribute something to the economic development in the south and the west of the country came at just the right time. Tea was new for me.”

This is what impressed me most on this trip: the visible and infectious commitment of the Rwandans we spoke to, which is reflected in the way they formulate their goals and in the way they drive implementation forward and discuss the next steps in order to make an important lasting contribution to the development of rural areas.

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