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Thriving in tea : Women-owned SMEs in Kenya

Thriving in tea : Women-owned SMEs in Kenya

different types of tea

As the pandemic continued to wage war on humanity, some aspects of life and work carried on in spite of it all; people stoically marching forward in the new normal that became our lives. They had to not only survive the effects of the pandemic on their lives, but also prepare to rebuild and come back better, emerging from the terrible times.

Back in November 2020 (that dreadful year!) a group of women – owned tea SME businesses in Kenya embarked on a training program organised by ITC and SheTrades Commonwealth. The aim of the wider program, which was supported by @FCDoGovUK , was to facilitate women participation in international trade. For this specific piece, it was to equip the participants with skills, knowledge, and tools in tea business to help build their competitiveness and resilience in the trade.

The complex nature of the global tea industry is such that small businesses (and in particular those that are women-owned and women-ran) face specific issues in relation to understanding the trade and gaining a foothold in the same. Without targeted, empathetic expert training and a continuation of support in the form of mentoring and coaching it can be difficult for these businesses to break through the fog of international tea business and get their products to reach the markets.

It was an eclectic and diverse group that arrived.

Some had barely begun their tea journey, forced by circumstances to begin to shape how and what they  would in tea. Others were already on the tea journey, but unsure about how to move it to the next level, stuck in a non-progressive mode. A couple of them were already well established, with products and presence on the market, locally and internationally. One thing they all had in common was the burning desire and thirst to understand the tea product better. They sought to get to grips with NPD and blending in tea and infusions, and how they can make tea more interesting and exciting. It was also clear they all had great interest in understanding the tea market – how to navigate it, thrive in it and have an engaging tea offering that translates into better business for them and ultimately better income and livelihoods for their families now and longer term.

I had My Work cut out!


It’s work that I took on with much anticipation and yes, a degree of apprehension too! While my confidence in tea knowledge and experience was not in doubt in my mind, I did ask myself how I could cater to all the knowledge requirements they all had and deliver training that would land with each participant well, no matter where they were on their journey. I also pondered how to keep them engaged remotely, and indeed deliver tasting participative training virtually! As you can well imagine, this was by far the biggest challenge facing me.

After reviewing the “wants list” from the participants, I pulled together a list of topics that I felt I could effectively build out in a way that would attempt to address the big issues for them for all, while striking some sort of balance in with the small but critical expectations. I knew there was no way I could address each and every need and give every bit of support needed by everyone in the group, but I also knew I could make a difference to each one, and that what I could share with them would shine a light on their path and open their eyes to ideas and facts they had no idea about. It would add to what they already know, greatly enriching their tool – box to help them thrive in tea.

So we started by seeking to understand the tea product. Surprisingly, many tea producers and tea industry players in producing countries have excellent knowledge of their teas and those grown in their country, but hardly any about other teas from elsewhere! It is not uncommon to encounter many a producer who believes theirs is the best tea in the world – and when you put in blood, sweat and passion into producing great tea every day, you do believe that. Understanding what teas other producers on the other side of the world make, how they compare to yours and those you know is an eye-opener for many. It not only brings reality home as far as own product quality is concerned, but also helps producers see opportunities in doing things differently. It helps them understand the competitiveness of their teas in the wider market which is where they play. They start to understand why their teas fetch the prices they do, and therefore what options they have and various things they could do to change that. That is learning. That is progress.


white tea, purple tea, oolong tea

 Global Landscape, new teas and markets

There was much excitement about learning to put together different tea ingredients and come up with a great tasting blend that not only looks and smells amazing, but also answers a consumer need. Tea blending remains a mystery to those not in the business and our session on blending, herbal teas and NPD proved to be the most popular. In Kenya, tea is drunk with a lot of milk, and with a median age of 19, and majority of these young people not keen on the milky sweet version of tea. We explored various types of blends that one could create to appeal to the younger, more affluent population who are health conscious and follow global trends. There is a wealth of indigenous herbs, spices and flowers, and of course different tea types to tap into.

Unpacking the facts and statistics, key issues and trends as well as understanding the players who make up the complex global tea landscape was, I felt, an important part of building confidence in the trade for the SMEs. Linking this back to the local scene helped demystify the trade, clear misconceptions about certain processes (the tea auction, for instance) and build confidence that they are in a good solid trade and have a place to play in it. Importantly, they explored how they can realise their potential as they play in that space and each create a niche for themselves. All this is of course set in the backdrop of continued low prices for CTC teas, decline in mainstream black tea consumption, and changing local tea regulation as the new Tea Act begins to impact the trade.

Markets, markets, markets…

The holy grail in tea is to find oneself offering products that the consumers love so much that they keep coming back for more and are happy to pay a good price for; a price that leaves the producer and supplier enough to make a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their family. Speak to any producer or tea supplier at origin and one word keeps ringing out in all conversations – markets. Markets that will do just this for them.

With the ever – growing quantities of general quality CTC tea (of which Kenya is the largest exporter in the world) many small producers have diversified into orthodox and speciality teas. We had in the group SMEs offering herbal teas, white, oolong, purple as well as green and black orthodox teas in bulk and in blends. The cost of producing these teas is not cheap; but market access remains a hard nut to crack. There are wonderful teas, lovingly made in small artisanal batches, on smallholder farms steeped in family values and stories that still find it hard to sell. It does not fill the farmers with confidence to continue in the trade. Indeed, some have considered other more lucrative options for their land such as real estate.

While equipping the SMEs with marketing skills and market understanding goes a long way to help, and we did speak about product storytelling, quality articulation and branding; all this is not enough. Surviving in the market post the pandemic will require a few new tricks in products creation, as well as how we communicate those products. As consumers continue to live with some of the changes they have had to make and adapt to so too will tea producers and sellers also will have to adapt. Health, hygiene, safety and social justice are top of mind for many consumers, while flexitime, increased rural and outdoor living will continue to drive consumer choice in many things long after this. Awareness of, and incorporation of these themes in the way we do tea business going forward will enhance relevance and resonance of tea products.

The road to market success if full of hoops to jump through, and obstacles to navigate around. We explored how to thrive with, and without trade certifications – let’s face it, majority of these very small businesses do not have the wherewithal to pay for and maintain that certification on going by themselves. Building in, practicing, and demonstrating commitment to the United Nations SDGs is achievable even without certification. Indeed, many of these tiny family businesses already have admirable provenance, worker, community and environment credentials – just not the certificates to show it. I have often suggested that for small scale speciality producers, we in the markets must look beyond certification, and seek to support real commitment and real need where it is.  This might mean helping them to achieve certification in some cases. We can also incorporate other support systems like co-branding and co-creating products, showcasing the real faces and stories of the farmers, their families and communities who go largely unseen in the markets.

Market players can also offer logistics support as shipping and courier charges are exorbitant at origin. Category promotion for tea will grow everyone’s piece of the pie, and this should be happening both at origin and in market countries. Another way to help is creating connections and introducing the producers to your connections who may be able to support them. If you are on any forums that you feel a producer can add or gain value from, bring them in.

These are just a few thoughts on ways we on the market end, whether we are packers, agents, buyers, tea houses or wherever we are in the value and supply chain, can help these small producers and suppliers reach the markets they so badly need.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The women-owned SMEs

To further address the variety of requirements, we planned in a 4 hour 1:1 session with each participant, the output of which was a clear individual roadmap for them to take forward the learnings, ideas and opportunities identified in the short, medium and long term. It was fantastic to see each come up with different and exciting plans, some of which were a complete change of direction from what they thought they planned to do before the training!

We ended by establishing a community, an empowered and connected group that will reach out and support each other, working together to make doing tea better for themselves and their compatriots.

It is fair to say that this was one of the most fulfilling pieces of work I have undertaken in my tea career. Using my knowledge and experience in tea in a way that helps small businesses get closer to realising their potential and also opens doors they did not know existed before speaks right to my purpose.


Meru Herbs Kenya Ltd

Eldo Tea

Tumoi Tea

Purple Chai Ltd


Melvins Marsh

Central Valley Ltd

Mogeni Tea

The Gem Solutions Ltd

One Touch Ltd

Stekar Foods Ltd

Multibless Internationl Ltd

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