24 March 2009


An early rise to tour the plantation and have a presentation from the different departments. First is the field harvesting, led by Julius, in which he describes the life cycle of a mature tea plant, the plucking of the leaves, pruning, and of course, water management. Even though it’s 8am, the sun is brutal.Next stop: the eucalyptus stand, which they grow as sustainable fuel to dry the tea. One would think: 23 miles from the Equator, the sun could do the job, but apparently the process is too precise and sol too fickle. They are experimenting with other options, including bamboo, and of course, anything is better than using petrol. Off to the factory; what a process. We suit up in lab coats and disinfect before going in to see all of the steps. Suffice it to say those little leaves go through a lot before you drop them in your cup.

Unilever generates much of its power from hydro electricity, and seeing the power station was a treat. The generators are quite old, made in Britain in the 30s or 40s; both aesthetically and environmentally pleasing.Part of Unilever’s sustainability effort includes their own tree planting (endangered native species, of course) as a carbon offset against the travel miles to get here. Of course the USA contingent came the longest distance, and we each had to plant six trees. Fear not, dear Reader, this artist’s hands were hardly sullied: staff did all of the hard work leaving only the dropping of a seedling into a hole and backfilling to our uneducated selves. It always feels good to have planted a few seedlings, hoping they will mature into big trees; but I don’t really believe in carbon offsetting. We should just stay home (says the guy who came the most miles).

The KTDA (Kenya Tea Development Authority) is a governmental agency that organizes the smallholder producers that grow 62% of the tea grown in Kenya. They provide education about techniques and technologies, operate processing factories, and sell the tea at the weekly auction in Mombassa. Uniliever is the largest buyer of KTDA tea to provide the balance between what they produce and what they need for their brands.

Photography in the KTDA factories is prohibited, a stricture I have ignored in the past, but observed today as it was similar to the Kericho factory. The Momul Factory was older with less technology, but the staff was dedicated and friendly. After a short (by African standards) meeting, we shared the obligatory tea and caravanned a small tea farm, owned and operated by Simon and Esther Langiot.Our arrival was greeted by that wonderful African acapella singing of individual statement and group response followed by a tour of the farm in which the owner described the transition to Rainforest Alliance certified production methods, and the differences it had made. Unilever has been working with the KTDA in the move to certify all of the tea used in their products, and this farm was really a model of order and good practice. Alas, the tour was followed by a rather endless presentation in which the group of local farmers FFS (Farmer Field School) presented, in a bit to great a detail, all of their experimentation and findings. But the upshot was that the program is encouraging and rewarding them to continuously examine and modify their practices, thereby improving yields and reducing environmental impact. They were wonderful, warm people, and it’s fantastic to see their enthusiasm, motivation, and gratitude to Unilever and RA. Also nice to see “fist world” Companies and NGOs working cooperatively with communities instead of dictatorially, and I think the results are much more effective and long-lasting.

During the presentation, I slipped away on a bit of a walkabout, stumbling upon this absolutely gorgeous young woman plucking tea in her small plot.We chatted a bit, such as we were able with our different tongues, about our different lives and realities.

SAAB meetings all day, and the patient reader knows how this scribe enjoys a good meeting. But in the spirit of sacrifice, it was off to find the perfect images to illustrate the making of tea. The hand-made aspect of the process seems the key, and the faces and smiles are so beautiful and natural; the mission was clear. I love the human face as subject matter: infinitely variable and interesting, and a window to the soul; I can shoot people endlessly. Actually, the SAAB crew, needing a bit of re√ęducation themselves, were sent to the fields at dawn to do a little plucking under the tutelage of the pros. [photo] Clearly this was not the perfect illustration of plucking, so off I went with Jeremiah (farm manager) in search of the grail.Another important aspect of tea horticulture is the pruning of the bush, done using a weed whacker with a blade, without which it becomes a tree. This forces the plant to "bush out" and keeps the leaves within reach of the pluckers. My determination for the perfect image came in direct conflict with Unilever’s obsession with safety. Fortunately, I had cleared my devil-may-care approach with one of the top executives, and the staff reluctantly allowed me to work without the armor normally worn on this job.

Next to the factory where Micha, the manager showed me around. In our brief group tour several days before, the concerned pr team, like mother hens, had immediately stopped me as I attempted to scale the vertiginous heights necessary to get the ideal images. Micha, proud of his team and operations, was happy to assist. Interesting the social differences in societies: in the west we keep our distance from each other, and are immediately suspicious of any unsanctioned contact (heaven forbid two men kiss or hug). Micha and I walked arm in arm through the factory chatting about this and that. Again I was struck at the complexity, cleanliness, and precision required in the making of tea.

Throughout the day I crossed paths with John, the British videographer chasing his version of the same story, trading friendly insults and barbs, and providing helpful tips. He mentioned that the breeding center was interesting, and I have always been fascinated with the idea of grafting: that we can take a root with desirable properties, attach it to a top and thus have our cake and eat it too. Margaret demonstrated the process, too simple to believe that it actually works.

After a quick lunch, it’s off to the Unilever sponsored school where the kids are so bright and enthusiastic and beautiful I just wanted to do a portrait of each one- problem is, as soon as I try to shoot one, 10 more crowd into the frame, all rushing toward the camera, making it impossible to focus.Of course whenever we media devils go to a school we gawk at the beautiful children, so I wanted to visit with the teachers. They were an inspiration, and we talked about our respective experiences, and I photographed them and promised to send a Wolf Center Calendar.

I love the fact that the tea factory generates 70% of its electricity from hydro power, so I had to go back by the station and do some abstracts of the machinery. The USA generates 50% of its power from coal, and the alternatives are abundant and free, and many of the technologies have been with us for a long time. I won’t go in to the devastating effects of coal- the patient reader has heard me rant on this subject before. We must demand change.

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