By David Njagi

The silence clouding Kenya’s tea sector has for long raised suspicion about widespread rights abuses. But the media can open it up through smart and consistent reporting.

Rights groups keen on breaking the silence around the sector say there is much that Kenyans need to know about the multi-billion industry. But it will take working closely with the media to get there.

Officials at Solidaridad, an international rights group working with smallholder farmers, say emerging challenges facing the sector like declining global demand for tea can be sorted if it rebranded from being a closed industry.

“We want to create forums where journalists can have easy access to information and practices in the tea industry. We believe opening up the sector can protect it from losing its global market share,” says Alex Amanya, a project manager at Solidaridad.

One way of opening the sector to public scrutiny is through increased media coverage and raising the voices of smallholder farmers, says Amanya, adding that trade unions responsible for the sector have been corrupted into silence.

Impact on environment

Apart from the absence of decent work, there are concerns about the pressures the tea sector puts on the environment. Tea factories consume huge amounts of firewood to process raw leaves into finished products.

Most of this firewood sourced from tea growing communities in Kenya is harvested from indigenous trees. A growing number of private tea factories are also discharging wastewater into rivers, according to investigations by Solidaridad.

“You will find that the local administration in tea growing counties does not know what is happening in the sector, but they know what is happening in coffee.  They feel that all is well in the tea sector because of the way the industry is structured,” says Amanya.

Amanya is certain journalists reporting on the environment can unveil the cloud obscuring the tea sector and raise more responsibility, especially among conglomerates that have controlled the industry for generations.

A tested way of doing this is through innovative media reporting, according to Justus Wanzala, a trainer at the Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association (KENSJA).

For instance, the media should invest in mobile studios and community media groups to boost content generation in the tea sector.

Communal ownership

Another approach is by tapping cultural events in the sector and using the power of the radio to ensure communities own the tea narrative.

Yet another is the use of digital tools and the power of social media to generate news in real-time and ensure it is readily available at a moment’s notice, says Wanzala.

“I feel responsible for telling these stories because Kenya is a leading exporter of tea and foreign exchange-earners. It benefits both the community and the country,” says Jacky Jelimo, a reporter at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

Kenya is the third-largest producer of tea after China and India, accounting for some 550 million kilogrammes of the leaf.

The sector employs about three million Kenyans where about half a million are smallholder farmers, while 80,000 workers benefit from direct employment.

“It is the role of the media to report on the tea sector because this provides farmers with answers to the issues affecting them,” says Nikko Tanui, a reporter with the Standard newspaper.