Tantrums will not solve the tea maker saga

Workers pick tea with a tea harvester at a farm in Kericho. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

All is not well in the South Rift, where the teacup storm is brewing over the introduction of mechanized farming.

Tea companies are accused of mechanizing operations at the expense of manpower. Just a few days ago they were told to leave Kenya “like yesterday” if they so wished.

Local leaders say they’re fed up with the “blackmail,” and when push comes to shove, they’ll seek new investors to play along. The clash is uncomfortable and could have complex ramifications if mismanaged politically and emotionally. While it’s imperative to get a win-win response, it doesn’t help when parties in the line throw tantrums. In the end, those who suffer are the little ones, hustlers, if you will. And in the same breath, using public forums to target investors is a blip. They need us and we need them badly. In an era of economic globalization, bashing the investor for whatever reason is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Investors must also fully comply with internationally best business practices.

Along with politicians, unions abhor tea picking machines. The mechanization program is accompanied by job losses. However, proponents argue that it increases efficiency and value. In Kericho County, the standoff has sparked ugly scenes, including violence and the burning of harvesters. do we really need this? For whose benefit?

In any case, in the 21st century it is impossible to fight technology. Instead of making Kenya’s agricultural sector seem notoriously rigid, we can create a dynamic economy by not only allowing dialogue, but also by exploring diverse innovations and tried and tested systems.

Politicians in counties can embark on bold programs that lead to diversification and more job opportunities, rather than taking the easier route of fighting change through clever populism. We can scratch our heads and find creative ways to revitalize low-income areas and ensure social stability without getting stuck in the past.

Technology is seen as the future of industrial productivity. If we love innovation in pharmacy, politics, communications and all other fields, we have no reason to look the other way when technology catches up with us right on the farms. For a country basking in global fame thanks to breakthroughs like MPesa, the e-citizen platform, one-stop Huduma centers, and many ed-tech and fin-tech creations, it’s a contradiction of monumental proportions to reject mechanized agriculture.

All over the world, agriculture has become high-tech. Farmers look for markets online. Importers and exporters do their thing on the web. For a struggling country whose economic future largely depends on agriculture, we cannot entirely reject ideas whose time has come.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describes mechanization as a critical input to production. With small farmers growing nearly 80 percent of Africa’s food through manual labour, the need for mechanized farming has never been more urgent as the continent faces a population explosion that will nearly double over the next 30 years. The Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of experts who guide countries’ policy decisions towards progress, suggests that African countries should set realistic investment plans in agricultural mechanization to increase agricultural productivity. Kenya must not be missing.

Researchers suggest that machine integration reduces stress and burnout among farm workers. Political opportunism, therefore, should not prevent us from becoming a developed nation led by “digital” leaders.

South Rift counties and tea investors should sit down and talk to each other in all honesty. Perhaps a gradual introduction of mechanization would suffice for the time being. The national government should speak up and hope for political goodwill in resolving the dispute. But we cannot bury our heads in the sand like the proverbial bouquet when technology revolutionizes the world.

The author is an editor at The Standard. Twitter: @markoloo

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