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Meru tea farmer makes fortunes from purple variety

Meru farmer Henry Njeru shot into the limelight for a very good reason – coming up with a plan to save the tea industry. At that time five years ago, general panic had hit the tea industry as global tea prices had collapsed. There was over supply in the global market.

The farmer, who at the time had over 400 acres of black tea, thought the best way forward was to diversify. And so when just such an opportunity arose, Njeru moved into purple tea farming. The Tea Research Institute had come up with a cross breed of imported tea variety from China with the local black tea.

The state-run institute had spent 25 years developing the purple variety, officially named TRFK 306. As a pioneer in Meru county in production of purple tea, Njeru is now a household name. And the farmer does not regret shifting to purple tea.

By the end of last year, he had 150 acres of purple tea, 350 acres of black tea and already, with plans underway to expand production of the new variety. Today, Njeru Industries Ltd operates in Meru town, processing and packaging purple tea, with a production capacity of 1,500 kilos of green (or purple this time) leaf daily.

The processed purple tea is exported to Asia and United States markets. Japan also imports the Kenyan purple tea where it is appreciated for beauty purposes. Packets of the processed purple tea in bags of 10kg and 20kg are also being shipped to Shanghai. Locally, a kilo of processed purple tea is available in supermarkets at Sh2,000 compared to Sh350 for a kilo of black tea.

A kilo can even fetch as much Sh30,000 in some Chinese hotels. Purple tea is a medicinal tea plant, with anthocyanins (anti-oxidants) it contains said to be effective against all types of cancers when taken along with medication. It also reduces susceptibility to cancer by strengthening the antioxidant capacity of body cells. It is taken without sugar and milk.

Lemon is added to enhance flavour and colour. “Anthocyanins have capacity to scavenge for free radicals and thus are good antioxidants,” says Stephen Karori Mbuthia, a biochemist at Egerton University, Kenya’s premier agricultural public university, and lead author of a recent study. Challenges Purple tea is reportedly good for people suffering from high blood pressure and other lifestyle diseases.

The herbal purple tea also lowers formation of fibroids in women, blood sugar and promotes weight loss. However, at the moment, only one of KTDA’s factories is able to handle the new leaf. But purple tea accounts for only a tiny fraction of the factory’s annual output.

While farmers close to that factory can deliver their freshly plucked purple leaves, growers elsewhere in Kenya are generally forced to have theirs processed along with the standard Black CTC tea. Still, the number of purple tea farmers and production statistics is poorly documented.

It is currently being grown by small-scale tea farmers and some of them look out for markets in the personal capacity. Njeru is optimistic that the local market consumption is set to increase as more Kenyans come to realise the benefits of purple tea.

Kenya is the world’s third-largest producer of tea, but nearly all production is a brisk black tea processed by the cut-tear-curl, or CTC, method. Mainly exported in bulk, this tea goes largely into English breakfast, Earl Grey and other blends.

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