A Healthy Food Movement Comes To Kenya’s Tea Capital

Jackline Cherono walks in from tending to her acre of tea in Ainamoi, a settlement in Kenya’s Kericho County where she works as a lead farmer. The lettering, “Toror Tea Factory” embroidered on her iridescent yellow jumpsuit pops out against the vibrant greens of dense Camellia sinensis leaves.

Jackline’s confident, wise and upbeat personality disguises the burden of grief that she has carried since the loss of her father to leukemia and her mother to high blood pressure just a few years ago. The death of both of her parents to non-communicable diseases was life-changing, giving Jackline no choice but to prematurely conclude her studies at Jomo Kenyatta University, where she had been studying public health. She had financial obligations at home.

“My siblings need me,” she says, wiping away tears.

Jackline is among many people in Kericho County whose lives have been turned upside down by health issues. For those who understand the context, the irony is blatant.

I look around… The richness of the vegetation, this beautiful, committed farmer, the snap-snap-snap of the photographer adjacent to me— I feel like I’m on the luxe set of a behind-the-scenes exposé on how the world’s most popular drink has made its way from the farmlands of Kericho to the sitting rooms of British aristocracy.

But this is instead a story of struggle that carries with it a stain of malnutrition and health crisis— a dim reality cast against the backdrop of a prosperous and thriving industry.

With the majority of export production originating here, Kericho is Kenya’s tea capital. And given that Kenya is the world’s largest black tea exporter, claiming a whopping 31.9% of the export marketit wouldn’t be far-fetched to refer to it as the black tea capital of the world.

Taylor’s of Harrogate most notable product, Yorkshire Tea, voted the best cup of tea by Brits in 2021, is made of tea leaves farmed in Kericho as does Twinnings’ robust English Breakfast Black Tea. In fact, most of the world’s most popular black teas contain the distinctly robust flavor of tea grown in the tea fields of Kericho.

But just as Brits enjoy a warm cup after a healthy meal, some thousands of miles away, Kenyan tea farming families are disproportionately malnourished, with high rates of non-communicable diseases and childhood stunting.

Pressure from foreign markets on the east African country’s tea production have created a race to the bottom, with smallholder farmers trying to create economies of scale by devoting their small plots almost exclusively to tea. The public health burden experienced by tea farmers, tea workers and their families—primarily women and children—has become the unintended consequence of Kenya’s economic dependence on the globally competitive commodity.

“The community in this area… When they wake up they go for tea plucking, tea weeding, tea planting… In a day, almost 6 to 8 hours is spent on the tea farm,” explains Benjamin Kimetto, the County Health Officer at the Department of Health in Kericho. “That has created a challenge because there has been no priority placed on other crops like food crops… A young mother with a kid under the age of five typically feeds that child tea or porridge without any other mix. When a parent feeds a child that way for three or more months, it will create a nutritional challenge.”

Data from Kenya’s Demographic and Health Survey (2014) reveals that stunting, or low height-for-age among children— one of the primary indicators of malnutrition— is 26% nationally, with close to 30% stunting among children who live in rural areas , as compared to less than 20% in the country’s urban areas, and up to 36% in the country’s tea producing regions.

In Kericho county alone, almost 29% of all children are stunted, with data revealing that more than half of children are not consuming iron-rich foods.

As the country’s leading foreign exchange earner, contributing to 23% of Kenya’s total foreign exchange earnings and supporting the livelihood of over 5 million peopleKenya’s tea sub-sector feeds the country’s economy while simultaneously fostering inequality that comes at the expense of the food security of those directly involved in its production.

But change is in progress. In no small part due to Jackline herself.

Spider plant… spinach… black nightshade… sukuma (kale)… capsicum… onions… vine nderema (spinach)… tree tomato… avocado… cornstarch… bananas… a variety of herbs… Jackline winds her way through the vegetation, pointing out multicolored food crops that paint a vibrant picture of health across the one acre plot on which her kitchen garden and tea farm coexist.

Kitchen gardens and healthy cooking have become all the rage in Kericho these days, thanks to a local initiative that has been helping to curb malnutrition and improve health indicators among Kericho’s tea workers.

In 2020, the Kenya Tea Development Agency Foundation (KTDA-F) partnered with Swiss-based NGO, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), with funding from private sector entities including Taylor’s of Harrogate and Twinnings, on what is known as the ‘TEAFAM” (Tea farming Families) project, part of GAIN’s Healthy Diets for Tea Communities programme. The project is a continuation of a Dutch-funded program that began in 2018.

“We have been trying to create demand for healthy diets among small scale tea farmers within the catchment areas,” says Caroline Aurah, a Project Manager at GAIN. “There is a great need to generate nutritional awareness in these communities.”

The TEAFAM project is improving the nutrition and health status of tea farmers and workers in Kericho by introducing more diversity to their diets through nutritional education, cooking demonstrations and kitchen gardening and composting, among other nutrition interventions.

Viola Cherono of the Kenya Tea Development Agency-Foundation who has been working as a Project Assistant for the TEAFAM project tells me that before the initiative was launched, nutritional intake among farmers was extremely limited, consisting mostly of ugali maize porridge- and some consumption of green leafy vegetables (though often overcooked, causing them to lose most of their nutritional value). Otherwise, diets tend to be high in fat, featuring the use of heavy creams and solid animal fats in cooking.

Given her role as a lead farmer, the chair lady of a community women’s group of finger millet growers, and a Community Health Volunteer (CHV) working with the Ministry of Health, Jackline was ideally suited to take on a leadership role in the TEAFAM project alongside other CHVs with whom she created a movement for change. The project also benefits her directly— she now cooks differently, eats differently, and grows what she eats.

Jackline and other CHVs, and Project Assistants have trained and supported tea farmers and workers and provided nutritional education to the community. They conduct training and “spread the word” at high traffic areas such as tea buying centers and churches— seizing every opportunity to promote healthy diets with their peers.

While not a direct intention of the programme, this change in lifestyle has created income-generating opportunities for people like Jackline who sells her surplus vegetables, has begun poultry farming and has even found a lucrative use for chicken manure towards the improvement of kitchen garden yields , during a time in which farmers have found it very difficult to source fertilizer.

“Manure from chickens is very important for kitchen gardening,” Jackline explains, as her brood of 100 chickens cluck in the background. Her poultry farming business has been an important contributor to her monthly income as has the sale of chicken-manure fertilizer to the other kitchen gardeners in the community.

“Ever since I started kitchen gardening, I have more time on my hands for these types of pursuits,” she explains, smiling proudly.

Before the program began, Jackline’s crops, outside of tea, consisted solely of bananas and sukuma (kale) which she would supplement with cabbage from the market.

Within a few months, she was able to successfully grow a thriving garden of local indigenous crops that are high in nutritional content and ideally suited to the local climate— the colorful, bountiful environs are a testament to that.

“I am so proud— I used to grow and now I sell,” Jackline beams. “I had been using cream in my cooking but I don’t anymore. I had been using solid cooking fat but now I am using cooking oil. I had been using sugar and salt in excess but now I’m using it sparingly. I used to cook vegetables for a long time, killing all of the nutrients in the process, but now I know… And I have all of this,” she says, pointing to her plot.

Socially, the community health movement has enriched the community, bringing people closer together, and men have even begun to cook with their wives and are encouraging the women in their lives to “join the movement.” But more importantly, according to Benjamin Kimetto, as behaviors have changed, health indicators have gradually improved — and in a surprisingly short space of time.

As for Jackline— while she continues to mourn the loss of her parents, she is improving her own life… and changing the lives of others in the process. This experience of positively impacting the health of her neighbors and her community through the TEAFAM project has provided her with more knowledge and fulfillment than a degree in Public Health could ever have.

“In the past, I’d wake up and have a quick cup of tea before I would tend to my crop,” she recounts. “I would then rush over to the buying center… Some days I wouldn’t eat at all.”

Nowadays, Jackline wakes up at her usual 5am. She has a cup of tea and heads over to her plot to oversee the work of her three pluckers. She tends to her kitchen garden, does her house chores and prepares a vitamin-A-rich sweet potato and some githeri (a Kenyan traditional meal of corn and legumes) for her lunch, which she eats at the buying center where she sells her tea .

She has become self-sufficient, has more free time and is optimistic about her future.

And while both of Jackline’s parents succumbed to non-communicable diseases at a very young age, her life, health and strong sense of purpose have been a tribute to their memories.

“My dream is to see everybody live a healthy life… To eat a healthy diet… To eat healthy food…” she says. “I pass on the message wherever I go.”