The promise of improved earnings from tea is expected to become a reality for Kenyan tea farmers as production of purple tea moves to a new level.
The first crop of purple tea which was officially introduced in Kenya in 2013 is now mature and plucking has started
“It takes three years for tea to mature and the crop that farmers planted is now ready for plucking,” said Mr Festus Kaburi the Kangaita Tea Factory manager.
Purple tea is a speciality tea which was developed in Kenya by the Tea Research Institute at the Kangaita station in Kerugoya.
It has a purple pigmentation drawn from a Chinese herb that it was cloned with. Purple tea is rich in anthocyanins which act as antioxidants.
Its high yielding properties make it comparable to the top varieties like TRFK 31/8 and it has wide adaptability suitable for all tea growing areas.
It is also resistant to drought, frost, diseases and pests and has undergone distinctness, uniformity and stability tests.
After its development, it was planted at KTDA’s 600 acre Kangaita farm for initial trials and further research. The farm’s nursery was also used for propagation for sale to farmers.
But even before its official release for commercialization in 2011, farmers had already enthusiastically adopted purple tea leaf on suspicion that it would fetch more than the green leaf.
“People were even stealing twigs for propagation from our farm and selling them,” said Mr Simon Mwangi, the farm manager of KTDA’s Kangaita farm.
The crop that was planted from 2011 by farmers in Kangaita, Murang’a, Thika and Kiambu is gradually maturing and will soon be ready for plucking.
Of all the 66 KTDA tea factories in the country, only Kangaita tea factory has a production line that can process purple tea.
According to Mr Kaburi, conventional CTC processing lines cannot be used to process purple tea.
“This is a separate processing line which is specifically designed for specialty teas,” said Mr Kaburi.
Unlike the conventional CTC line that can only process huge amounts of tea leaf from 30,000kgs upwards, the specialty tea processing line can only produce very small quantities of up to 10kgs of processed tea.
With the specialty tea processing line various types of specialty teas can be produced in small quantities, such as white tea, green tea, purple tea and black orthodox tea.
Purple tea is not fermented like the normal CTC teas so as to maintain its health benefits.
“We have been experimenting with different processing styles so as to bring out the best in purple tea, as research work is ongoing” said Mr Kaburi.
This, according to Mr Kaburi, is part of research and development which also involves lab analysis and offering samples to consumers for feedback.
“The quantities we have been getting are not much but they are slowly increasing” noted Mr Kaburi.
Farmers in Kangaita area who were the first to plant have already started to deliver small quantities of purple tea.
But farmers from areas like Murang’a Kiambu and Thika who had planted purple tea may be forced to mix it with the normal tea during delivery since it cannot be transported to the Kangaita factory.
Due to this, KTDA plans to set up small cottage processing plants to deal with the small quantities of purple tea leaf produced in areas far from the Kangaita factory.
Cottage processing plants are successfully used in China and Sri Lanka in processing small amounts of tea at farm level.
According to Mr Kaburi, most of the purple tea processed at the Kangaita factory is sold through factory gate sales and direct orders from clients or people who visit the factory.
Being a new product both in Kenya and internationally is posing a marketing challenge for KTDA.
The agency’s general manager for sales and marketing Mr Albert Otochi said that the product is still in piloting stage and market research is still continuing.
“This is a new product and we have been sending samples to speciality buyers,” said Mr Otochi.
Countries that are being targeted include the US, Germany and Australia.
Mr Otochi noted that KTDA has been trying both existing and new markets and has been getting positive feedback.
Branding of purple tea is also in the pipeline and the tea agency is expected to soon launch the branded product into the local market.
The product will be placed to appeal to increasingly health conscious Kenyans due to its health benefits.
Studies show that the anthocyanin rich purple tea can be used for their health enhancing properties. Tests show that it helps to prevent some types of cancers and it also slows down aging.
“We want to encourage Kenyans to consume purple tea because of its health benefits,” said Mr Kaburi.
To get maximum benefits, purple tea is best taken without milk which neutralizes its antioxidants. It can even be taken without a sweetener such as sugar but if one must use a sweetener, then honey is the most recommended.
Purple tea is not as bitter as other conventional teas and can be used with only lemon which enhances the purple pigmentation and improves taste.
Producing speciality teas is expected to stem the continued drop in tea earnings caused by a glut in the international market.
Speciality teas are set to earn more revenue for tea farmers even without the need to expand their tea fields.
Once production increases, anthocyanins extracted from purple tea may be used for other industrial applications such as manufacture of food colorants, beer, juice, wines, and nutraceuticals.
If the market starts expanding, KTDA is expected to advice farmers to grow more purple tea to satisfy increased demand.
According to Mr Mwangi, the KTDA Kangaita farm manager, farmers will not require to adopt any new agronomical practices to plant purple tea.
“Its agronomical practices are similar to those of all other tea clones planted in Kenya,” said Mr Mwangi.
Propagation, fertilizer application, disease and pest control and plucking are all done like conventional tea.