Tea packers now turn to herbs for value addition

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022 09:20 | By
Tea is served! PHOTO/Courtesy

Rapid urbanisation and changing consumer preferences have encouraged local tea packers to diversify their product offering giving by incorporating herbs into their teas to increase the use of herbs in tea value addition.

This has led to an increase in the production of the plants with aromatic properties, but surprisingly Kenyan farmers are at a loss as they don’t produce enough and are superior in quality prompting the local tea packers to source them from other countries.   

Kenya Tea Packers (Ketepa) the leader in tea packing is in a big way using herbs in tea value addition and thus able to attract a high number of consumers mainly the expanding middle class and young generation with it’s ready to drink tea.

“We are integrating tea with a lot of herbs, such as ginger, lemon verbena, chamomile and thyme to produce flavoured tea. This is in response to the changing consumer sensitivities,” said John Ngatia, Ketepa head of production in his Kericho office recently.

ISO standards for blending

To date, the Government has licensed more than 200 tea packers with Ketepa enjoying 36 per cent of the market share of local tea value addition. Value addition of local tea is minimal leading to most of the crop being exported in bulk to various destinations in the world. 

Kenya is the leading exporter of Black Cut Tear and Curl (CTC) tea in the world, though highly regarded in terms of quality only seven per cent is consumed locally. Tea Board of Kenya (TBK) top management says local tea consumption in 2021 reached 38.4 million kilogrammes accounting for a 7.1 per cent increase compared to 35.6 per cent in 2020. This translates to less than one-kilogramme consumption per person annually. 

“By using the herbs in value addition, our message to the consumers is that the aromatic plants are natural and are sourced from different locations and have achieved the requisite International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO)standards for blending. We initially used to source some herbs from the local markets, but after receiving feedback from the consumers we opted to change to foreign markets,” said Ngatia.  

He adds the herbs are also sourced from various ecological zones and thus guarantee certain qualities that resonate well with the beverage considerations and food safety specifications that are in the market today.

Ngatia observes that local farmers do not produce enough herbs of the right quality hence prompting his company to source the aromatic plants from countries outside the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region. “Due to changing consumer preferences, we are always careful where we source our herbs.

While using the herbs, one has to be careful as some global tea markets are sensitive in terms of food safety. We have been listening keenly to our consumers on their reactions whenever they use some of our flavoured tea products,” explained Ngatia.

Herbs are plants with fragrant or aromatic properties that can be used to flavour food, included in fragrances, and even a part of natural medicines. Some of the herbs include basil, parsley, rosemary, ginger, thyme, and dill.

Ngatia said the way consumer preference has continued to evolve over time and the way our mothers used to drink tea is not the same way tea is drunk today. “We have an emerging young population which is insisting to take their teas and their preferences differently,” he says.

Ketepa procures conventional tea from factories affiliated with Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) and other few private companies out of which the same is blended even using herbs to make flavoured tea.

Some of the flavoured teas include Ketepa pride black tea, Ketepa pride herbal infusions, jasmine flavoured, grey flavoured, purple, white and orthodox tea. He confirms his company presently is importing the herbs from Nigeria, Turkey, Morocco and Tanzania and sourcing selectively from the local farmers. “This is a big opportunity for farmers to produce the required herbs as the same will earn them more income. If farmers can grow the same locally, it will help us even in terms of cost of production reduction,’’ he adds.

For the same to happen, Ngatia advises that the government in conjunction with other agricultural value chains need to intensify training for farmers so that the latter can agree to diversify into herb farming. Before the aromatic plants are used in tea, Ngatia confirms that the same has to be tested on maximum residual levels (MRLs) in local Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) laboratories.

“This is in response to food safety requirements in the global market. Equally using herbs that are certified contributes to a wider acceptability of our products in the markets,” he explains. 

Tea Board of Kenya (TBK) hailed the Ketepa efforts to blend local tea with various flavours in order to enhance consumption locally.

“Using herbs has presented a big opportunity to local farmers to venture into herbal plant farming as part of diversifying their income streams in addition to making the tea business more sustainable. When they cannot earn impressive prices from the main market outlets like the auction, they are able to get extra earnings from other crops that can be used in value addition in tea,” said James Marete TBK assistant director in charge of technical and advisory services.  

Growing the herbs Marete argues will provide a ready market for local tea packers and thus reduce the cost of doing business for the companies undertaking value addition.

According to tea regulations published in 2020 by agriculture cabinet secretary Peter Munya a tea buyer or exporter shall increase the percentage of their value-added annual tea exports by at least five per cent every year to achieve not less than 40 per cent within eight years.

Marete calls for collaboration between agriculture value chains that can advise farmers on the best good agricultural practices to apply to achieve high-quality herbs.

“Ketepa is prompted to import the herbs as locally produced plants have inferior value or characteristics. So in this case we can have the tea producers and the producing companies partnering with other departments in the Ministry of Agriculture to train tea growers on how to maximise the quality or even to produce better herbs than the ones that are imported into the country,” adds Marete.

Other tea packers and processing companies that have ventured into value addition of their teas, include Melvins Tea, Kericho Gold, and Muthaiga Tea Company, among others.

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