Despite being Uganda’s third biggest export commodity after coffee and fish and being one of the strategic commodities singles out under the NDP III and agro industrialization program in order to steer national development and incomes, the tea sector still remains constrained by many challenges along the entire value chain due to lack of regulations.
Tea contributes 3.6 per cent of Uganda’s export earnings earning the country over $72m and yet tea industry stakeholders believe this can even be doubled if there was a policy in place to regulate the sector especially in terms of quality and production which affect prices on the international markets compared to its Kenya and Rwanda counterparts.
According to stakeholders in the tea sector, the lack of a policy has compromised the development of the sector. Farmers do whatever they wish and have no say on prices and quality of fertilizers.
They are prone to using fake inputs or none at all yet tea growing cannot do without quality certified inputs if the quantities are to be sustained and quality of leaf improved.
As a result, Uganda’s tea quality is severely compromised and there is no incentive by farmers to improve it. While tea out growers are vital because they supply 68 per cent of the green leaf, their role is not recognized with factories paying whatever price they determine to the farmers.
There are also no set standards for quality tea production along the value chain the reason for poor tea quality at the Mombasa auctions where it fetches the least prices compared to Kenya and Rwanda.
Apart from giving out free seedlings, sector players say nothing much has been achieved through government interventions to improve the sector. Since 2013, over 500 million tea seedlings have been distributed to farmers and even though acreage has doubled, production has not.
THE NEED FOR A POLICY
Alex Amanya, a project manager in charge of tea projects at Solidaridad, a non-government organization, said that Uganda is currently the second largest tea producer in Africa after Kenya producing about Shs 85m Kgs annually. But in terms earnings, Uganda is not even close to Rwanda which produces about 35 million Kgs per year because of our quality which is still the lowest in East Africa.
This therefore affects our earnings from tea as an industry and as a nation yet we have the capacity to match Kenya. Rwanda earns over $96m (Shs 364bn) from its tea production while Uganda earns about $80m (Shs 304bn).
“The national tea policy will address a lot of issues in the tea sector. Kenya receives about $1.2bn revenue from tea yet we have more arable land for tea than them. This stems from the uncoordinated nature the way the industry is setup in Uganda so that requires a tea policy,” he said.
Amanya added, “We don’t have regulations regarding production and processing. You find tea is being grown in every place even those that are not arable enough and even the processing is not regulated. You find people setting up factories near each other and then setting up unhealthy competition which affects quality. Tea earnings depend on the quality; you may have a lot of production but will less quality, you earn less.”
Amanya further said a tea policy will bring all the stakeholders together and have a common voice in terms of approach and perhaps create their own tea auction centre because at the moment they rely on the Mombasa tea auction which is largely controlled by the Kenyan tea industry. So the policy will setup and streamline how Uganda markets and brands its tea.
Onesmus Matsiko of the Uganda Tea Association said the issues they are targeting in the tea policy are regulation of standards and creating a platform for institutional framework strengthening because with institutions strengthened and having interactions of stake holders through a structured framework, then they can restore fertilizer creditworthiness of farmers, create bargaining capacity for prices of farmer and guarantee quality which can earn high prices on the international markets.
Matsiko also noted that the effect of free seedling supplies by government created high acreage of tea estates which exceeded factory capacities and with declining fertilizer supply, the field yields have crushed to the extent that when a few factory lines were added across the country, the fields are giving less and now there isn’t enough tea leaves for the factories.
“But if we had policies that would strengthen a link between farmers and factories, encouraged fertilize application, quality control, the farmers would be able to afford the expensive fertilizers and have forms of accessing them thereby increasing the national tea yields.”
Alex Lwakuba, the commissioner Crop Production in the ministry of Agriculture said the policy has been drafted again and ready to be submitted to cabinet and the key issues it addresses are strengthening research, extension services, post- harvest handling, processing, trade and marketing with all these aimed at improving the quality of Uganda’s made tea, profitability and competitiveness.
“We have low profits being realized from Uganda’s tea which is being caused by poor quality which is compromised at all levels of the value chain starting from the varieties of the clones we are planting and that is why the ministers of agriculture have told us to emphasize research and extension services in the policy,” Lwakuba said.
“This is a comprehensive policy which covers production, processing and marketing; it basically covers the entire value chain from seedlings to consumption,” he added.
WHY THE DELAY?
The National Tea Policy was first drafted by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2005 to give strategic direction to the sector. The tea trade policy followed in 2016 by the Ministry of Trade. However, in 2018, the then Prime Minister called foe the two policies to be merged as the national tea policy. It has never been passed by cabinet.
Lwakuba said after drafting the policy and securing clearance from the solicitor general and ministry of finance, they took it to the cabinet secretariat which advised that instead of an individual crop commodity policy, they should think of holistic policies for all crops so that there is subsidiary legislation.
He also said that when new political leadership came in at the agriculture ministry, the ministers said they would like to see the research, extension services, post-harvest handling and value addition issues coming out prominently in the policy.
“The ministers were so much looking at the agriculture side but we had to explain to them that we had a directive from the Prime Minister’s Office in 2018 who advised that we work together with the Ministry of Trade and come up with one policy which covers the agriculture value chain and also the trade and industry value chain. So we are addressing the recommendations of the new ministers of agriculture but without compromising the directives given to us by the prime minister’s office,” Lwakuba said.
He added, “Two weeks back we had a key stakeholder meeting supported by Uganda Tea Association where we addressed the recommendations from cabinet and ministers of agriculture. So we are yet to update the documents and submit to cabinet.”
Matsiko noted that the biggest undercurrent to the enactment of the tea policy is the decision makers of this country who have failed to appreciate the importance of having this policy and remained ignorant about the sector.
“The Agriculture ministry, parliament and cabinet don’t know so much about the tea sector. Parliament picks on an MP who is a tea farmer and becomes their consultant or if there is a cabinet minister who owns a tea garden, he becomes the cabinet consultant on the tea industry and when he mentions something in cabinet, it is sacrosanct,” he said.
He, however, also noted that even among the sector players themselves, there is no general appreciation of having this policy in place because there are players who benefit from lack of regulations.
“We haven’t prioritized fertilizers to increase Uganda’s tea yields but instead prioritized giving out seedlings because there are nursery bed operators who profit more from distribution of these seedlings rather than the national demands which would increase earnings from the tea industry.”
In Uganda currently, tea is being grown in the districts of Kyenjojo, Bushenyi, Buhweju, Mukono, Isingiro, Ntungamo, Mitooma, Rubirizi, Kamwenge, Mbarara, Kisoro, Kabale, Zombo and Nebbi giving a combined acreage of 45,000 hectares for Uganda’s tea-growing area.
Source: The Observer