I was told to arrive at 10am on my first day of work. As I neared the top of the third flight of stairs, a large green and white sign reading “KADET, Ltd.” came into view. I readjusted my skirt, paused to catch my breath, and walked through the door.
After introducing myself to the receptionist, I took a seat in one of the dark cloth chairs assembled around a table filled with newspapers in the waiting room. A few minutes later Alice, the Kiva Coordinator, came out and greeted me with a big smile. She led me down a narrow green hallway and through an ochre door with a sign that said “Operations.” “Wait here and take tea,” she said. “When you are through, we will talk.”
And so I sat in the Operations room and had my first cup of Kenyan tea.
I’ve been in Kenya for almost a month now, and on any given day have been known to drink up to six cups of tea. As children in school we were taught that a healthy diet consists of eight glasses of water a day; Kenyans have extrapolated this concept and applied it to tea. Every office I’ve visited has an employee whose sole responsibility is to make tea which is to be served at 10am and 4pm. KADET’s headquarters is no exception, and Doris – our tea lady – has won a special place in my heart. She is always smiling, has a flair for interesting conversation, and an amazing hand for brewing tea. She gives me the special treatment, sometimes serving me a treat on the side (sweet potato, mandazi, chapati) and even allowing me to take tea during off hours.
Many of the Kiva borrowers I meet offer me a cup of tea, thereby establishing a friendship before proceeding with the discussion of loans, repayments and other business.
This custom persists beyond the confines of the office. Visit any home in Kenya and you are sure to be offered tea. It is served very hot all day long, regardless of the often scorching temperatures outside. The average Kenyan consumes four cups of tea a day: at breakfast, at ten o’clock, at four o’clock and after dinner. My roommate Tony adds an extra cup after work to this daily routine.
On a recent trip to Tseikuru, I discovered that although skipping lunch is not out of the ordinary, Kenyans never miss tea time. Hilda, Makanga, and I left Nairobi at 7am, and by 10am we still had a six hour drive ahead of us. We were in a hurry to get to our destination, yet at 9:30 discussions began around where we would take our morning tea. Our driver, Nicholas, stopped the car in a tiny, one-street town and shut off the engine. There may not have been a grocery store or a gas station, but there was definitely somewhere that would serve the expected tea.
How to make Kenyan tea:
Recently, I asked Doris to show me how she makes tea. It is a combination of whole milk, sugar, tea leaves, ginger and masala spice (cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and nutmeg). She combines an equal ratio of whole milk and water, adds the tea leaves and spices, and brings the entire mixture to a boil. She lets it simmer for an hour before serving hot with three spoonfuls of sugar per cup. For someone who drinks her coffee black, I must say that this sugary Starbucks-like treat is very difficult to resist.
A short history and other information:
Kenya is one of Africa’s oldest tea-producing countries. The earliest reference to tea growing dates back a hundred years to 1903. It is believed that a British settler living in Kenya’s western highlands imported the first Camellia Sinensis seedlings from India and planted them on a two-acre farm on an experimental basis. By 1928, Kenya’s teas were being sold at the London Tea Auction and by the 1950s, Kenya had become a significant player in the international tea market. A hundred years later tea continues to flourish in Kenya, making the East African nation the world’s fourth largest producer of black tea (after India, China and Sri Lanka) and second only to Sri Lanka as the world’s leading tea exporter. Kenya’s annual tea production of approximately 295,000 tons contributes up to 28% of Kenya’s export earnings.
Tea farming represents a significant livelihood for more than 315,000 Kenyan tea farmers. Mature bushes are picked every 17 days, and a good employee can collect almost double his or her own body weight in tea each day. The Kenyan tea industry is unique in that its small landholders produce the bulk of the country’s tea. These small scale farmers grow over 60% of the tea to be sold at market; they own their land and have tea licenses permitting them to grow and pluck the green leaves and deliver it to buying stations run by the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA). KTDA acts as managing agent to the smallholder tea sector and is technically owned by all of Kenya’s small-scale tea farmers.
The main tea growing districts are situated in or around the highland areas on either side of the Rift Valley. At altitudes ranging from 5000-7000 feet above sea level, evaporating water from Lake Victoria supplies much of the needed moisture for tea plants.
On my recent drive back to Nairobi from Kisumu, I was able to take in the beautiful expanse of bright, shamrock green tea fields lining the main road.