Healthy food movement is coming to Kenya’s tea capital

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

Jackline’s confident, wise and optimistic personality belies the burden of grief she has carried since losing her father to leukemia and her mother to hypertension just a few years ago. The death of both her parents from non-communicable diseases changed her life, leaving Jackline with no choice but to finish her studies prematurely at Jomo Kenyatta University, where she was studying public health. She had financial obligations at home.

“My brothers and sisters need me,” she said, wiping away her tears.

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

I look around me… The richness of the vegetation, this handsome committed farmer, the photograph of the photographer next to me, I have the impression of being on the luxury set of a presentation on the backstage of the The world’s most popular drink moved from the farmlands of Kericho to the salons of the British aristocracy.

But it is rather a story of struggle that carries with it a stain of malnutrition and health crisis – a grim reality projected against the backdrop of a thriving and flourishing industry.

With the majority of export production coming from here, Kericho is the tea capital of Kenya. And given that Kenya is the largest black tea exporter in the world, claiming 31.9% of the export market, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the black tea capital of the world.

Taylor’s of Harrogate’s standout product, Yorkshire Tea, voted Britain’s best cup of tea in 2021, is made from tea leaves grown in Kericho, as is Twinnings’ robust English Breakfast black tea. In fact, many of the world’s most popular black teas contain the distinctly robust flavor of tea grown in Kericho’s tea fields.

But just as Britons enjoy a hot cup after a healthy meal, thousands of miles away, Kenyan tea-farming families suffer disproportionately from malnutrition, with high rates of non-communicable diseases and stunting among the children.

Pressure from foreign markets on the East African country’s tea production has created a race to the bottom, with smallholders trying to create economies of scale by devoting their small plots almost exclusively to tea. The public health burden suffered by tea growers, tea workers and their families – mainly women and children – has become the unintended consequence of Kenya’s economic dependence on the globally competitive commodity. world.

“The community in this area… When they wake up, they go pick tea, weed tea, plant tea… In one day, almost 6 to 8 hours are spent on the tea farm,” explains Benjamin Kimetto, the county health officer at the Kericho Health Department. “This created a challenge as no priority was given to other crops like food crops… A young mother with a child under five usually gives that child tea or porridge without any other mixture . When a parent feeds a child this way for three months or more, it creates a nutritional challenge.

Data from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2014) reveal that stunting, or low height for age among children – one of the main indicators of malnutrition – is 26% at nationwide, with nearly 30% stunting among children living in rural areas. , compared to less than 20% in the country’s urban areas and up to 36% in the country’s tea-growing regions.

In Kericho County alone, nearly 29% of all children are stunted, with data revealing that more than half of children do not consume iron-rich foods.

As the country’s main foreign exchange earner, contributing 23% of Kenya’s total foreign exchange earnings and supporting the livelihoods of over 5 million people, Kenya’s tea sub-sector fuels the country’s economy while by promoting inequalities that are detrimental to food security. of those directly involved in its production.

But change is on the way. Largely because of Jackline herself.

Spider plant… spinach… black nightshade… sukuma (kale)… peppers… onions… vine nderema (spinach)… tree tomato… avocado… corn… bananas… a variety of herbs… Jackline winds through the vegetation, indicating crops multicolored food crops that paint a dynamic picture of health on the one-acre lot on which his vegetable garden and tea farm coexist.

Vegetable gardens and healthy cooking have become trendy in Kericho these days, thanks to a local initiative that has helped fight malnutrition and improve health indicators among Kericho tea workers.

In 2020, the Kenya Tea Development Agency Foundation (KTDA-F) partnered with a 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 Jumelages, on what is called the ‘TEAFAM’ (Tea Farming Families) project, which is part of GAIN’s Healthy Diets for Tea Communities programme. The project is a continuation of a Dutch-funded program that started in 2018.

“We tried to create demand for healthy diets among small tea producers in catchment areas,” explains Caroline Aurah, project manager at GAIN. “There is a great need to generate nutritional awareness in these communities.”

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

Viola Cherono of the Kenya Tea Development Agency-Foundation, who worked as a project assistant for the TEAFAM project, tells me that before the initiative was launched, the nutritional intake of farmers was extremely limited, consisting mainly of porridge from ugali maize and some consumption of green leafy vegetables (although often overcooked, causing them to lose most of their nutritional value). Otherwise, diets tended to be high in fat, with the use of heavy creams and solid animal fats in cooking.

Given her leadership role in her region, as a lead farmer, chairperson of a community group of women finger millet producers and Community Health Volunteer (CHV) working with the Ministry of Health, Jackline was perfectly placed. to assume leadership. role in the TEAFAM project alongside other CAs with whom she created a movement for change. The project has also directly benefited her: she now cooks differently, eats differently and grows what she eats.

Jackline and other CHWs, as well as project assistants trained and supported tea growers and workers and provided nutrition education to the community. They hold trainings and “spread the word” in busy areas such as tea-shops and churches, taking every opportunity to promote healthy diets to their peers.

Although not a direct intention of the program, this change in lifestyle has created income-generating opportunities for people like Jackline who sells her surplus vegetables, has started raising poultry and even found a lucrative use of chicken manure to improve yields in his vegetable garden. , at a time when farmers had great difficulty in obtaining fertilizer supplies.

“Chicken manure is very important for the vegetable patch,” says Jackline, as her brood of 100 chickens clucks in the background. His poultry business has been a major contributor to his monthly income, as has the sale of fertilizer made from chicken manure to other market gardeners in the community.

“Since I started the vegetable garden, I have more free time for this kind of activity,” she explains, smiling proudly.

Prior to the start of the program, Jackline’s crops, apart from tea, consisted solely of bananas and sukuma (kale) which she would supplement with cabbage from the market.

Within months, she managed to grow a thriving garden of local native crops that were high in nutrition and perfectly adapted to the local climate – her colorful, high-yielding crop is proof of that.

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

Socially, the community health movement has enriched the community, bringing people together, and men have even started cooking with their wives and encouraging women around them to “join the movement”. But more importantly, according to Benjamin Kimetto, as behaviors changed, health indicators gradually improved – and in a surprisingly short period of time.

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

“In the past, I would get up and have a quick cup of tea before tending to my harvest,” she says. “I would then rush to the mall… Some days I wouldn’t eat at all.”

These days, Jackline wakes up at her usual 5 a.m. She takes a cup of tea and goes to her plot to supervise the work of her three pickers. She tends to her vegetable patch, does her household chores, and prepares a vitamin A-rich sweet potato and githeri (a traditional Kenyan meal made from maize and pulses) for her lunch, which she eats at the mall. where she sells her tea.

She has become independent, 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 purpose have been a tribute to their memories.

“My dream is to see everyone leading a healthy life…Eating healthy…Eating healthy…” she says. “I spread the message everywhere I go.”

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