Kenya: Search for a Great Cuppa At Kiambethu

By Kari Mutu

The winding country roads of Limuru in Kenya have a picturesque view of hillsides carpeted in lime green tea plantations. The area was the birthplace of tea-growing in Kenya in 1903.

Kiambethu Farm is situated less than an hour from Nairobi. It is one of the oldest and among the few tea estates open to visitors for guided tours. Five generations have lived and farmed here and there has been almost a century of continuous tea production.

A troop of colobus monkeys cavort on the green, corrugated iron roof when I arrive. The two-storey, whitewashed house looks out onto an immaculate lawn surrounded by an English-style garden where brilliantly coloured sunbirds flit around in search of nectar. In one corner of the garden is a medium-size tree with small white flowers and green seeds — a tea tree.

“Tea is from the same family as camellia and if you don’t pick it, it becomes a tree,” says Fiona Vernon, owner and farm manager. We settle down on the verandah to a cup of tea with biscuits as Fiona talks about Kiambethu, tea-growing and her grandfather.

A C McDonell, Fiona’s grandfather, was a settler farmer who struck it lucky with the “green gold.” Originally a timberman, he built, carved and transported raw timber with a team of oxen.

McDonell later purchased 350 acres of land and built a mud-and-wood house for his wife and four daughters in 1910. Unfortunately, the house was devoured by white ants and in 1930 he put up the current structure, by which time he was already planting tea.

“The tea seeds were a gift from India. He started planting tea in 1918 and was one of the first commercial farmers,” says Fiona. The rich, red volcanic soils, good rainfall and sunny days of Limuru are ideal for tea cultivation.

“He processed it here on the farm because there was no tea factory. He would just make it on the farm, literally drying it in the sun or in the cold weather, over a wood-burning stove.”

In the early days, the dried tea leaves were carted down to Nairobi where McDonell would sell them to Indian traders in the commercial area of Biashara Street. “It was not blended so it was never the same taste twice. He did that until the early 1960s,” said Fiona.

“My mother, being the eldest, inherited the farm. We moved here in the early sixties and mum ran the farm.” It was about this time that people were being encouraged to take out the original seed plant and cultivate tea clones developed at local research stations.

By the late 1970s, most of Kiambethu was sold off, leaving just 30 acres of which only two acres now have tea. The tea tours continued although at first Fiona did not want to take over their running. But, after her mother died in 1998, she had to give a tour and “It was easier to do it than to cancel. I had terrible butterflies, but the visitors were so nice to me that I thought, this has gone on for 30 years, why not continue it?”

Whereas some larger plantations are now using tea harvesters, Kiambethu’s tea, and that of its neighbours, is still handpicked. The pickers select the top two leaves and a bud. With continuous pruning and picking, the evergreen bushes will grow for decades.

Hand-picking is said to produce tastier tea than machine-harvested leaves. “The machine is like a lawn mower and will just pick everything,” said Fiona. The bushes must be picked regularly, every 10-14 days in the peak season, meaning a consistent labour pool is essential.

Kenya grows Camellia sinensis black tea of the Assam variety (known for its body and strong flavour) which is ideal for tea bags. Over 90 per cent of Kenya’s tea is exported making the country the third tea exporter in the world.

Kiambethu is a fully-operational farm and milk from its Guernsey cattle is used to make delicious homemade ice cream and churned butter. The kitchen garden supplies fresh greens that visitors enjoy during a three-course lunch.

Source: All Africa