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Tea Crisis: Kenya crisis hits tea hard

17 January 2008 09:16:13

NAIROBI, Jan 17, 2008 (AFP) - Tea is a casualty of the turmoil sparked by disputed presidential elections in Kenya, with thousands of workers forced to flee plantations in one of the world's top exporters, industry sources say.

Between 26,000 and 70,000 tea sector employees from the western region of Kericho, where Kenya's main plantations lie, fled in fear of their lives after the disputed December 27 presidential poll, said Joshua Okelo, national treasurer of the Kenya Plantation Agricultural Workers Union.

"The tension is very high," he said, three weeks later.

After Mwai Kibaki was declared re-elected on December 30, the east African country sunk into a week of riots and tribal clashes which killed more than 700, according to police, and forced a quarter of a million to flee their homes.

Strongholds of opposition leader Raila Odinga in the west of the country were badly hit and the tea plantations witnessed score-settling between Odinga supporters and suspected Kibaki sympathisers.

"The Kalenjin said they don't want Kisiis in the tea industry," Okelo said, referring to two of Kenya's 42 tribal groups.

Dozens of employees' houses, which sit among the tea fields, were burned down. Their inhabitants fled through the fields, a local nun said, requesting anonymity.

"They were hiding in the tea plantation. Some spent four days there. They had no food," she added.

Eight people were killed at Unilever, Kenya's largest tea company, said national managing director Richard Fairburn.

Many others returned to their home districts for their own safety, he added.

Those targeted were mainly from the Kisii tribe, who partially supported Kibaki, and Kibaki's own Kikuyu tribe, according to witnesses.

Since the clashes, "all the Kisiis have left" the tea plantations around Kericho, Okelo said.

"Those who remain here belong to Raila Odinga (a Luo)," said a member of the Kalenjin tribe, a stallholder on Unilever's immense property lined with tea fields and rows of semi-detached houses.

The tea plantations suffered serious damage to houses, vehicles and warehouses.

Unilever estimates repairs will cost between 30 and 40 million Kenyan shillings (between 300,000 and 400,000 euros, 450,000 and 600,000 dollars) and says it has significantly slowed down operations.

The Kenya Tea Growers Association, comprising four companies, says business has dropped by more than half.

"They are operational at 40 percent," said Tideon Too, the association's executive officer.

The main work in this season is pruning plants, which is key for the first harvest of the year, in May.

Plantations have hired seasonal workers to make up the shortfall, but also need seasonal workers, Too said.

The recent unrest as well as drought have increased the price of tea by around 0.5 dollars (0.3 euros) per kilo in recent days at the Kenyan port of Mombasa, from where it is exported.

"We will bring workers back when the government says that the situation is back to normal," Fairburn said, as opposition supporters continued to protest against Kibaki's re-election.

But those who remained on the plantations said the mood in the area was not for reconciliation.

"If they come back, it will be bad again," said one Kalenjin worker.

Anonymous letters threatening members of the Kisii and Kikuyu tribes of further attacks if they failed to flee circulated at the start of the week on the Naandi plantations, an hour and a half by road from Kericho, Okelo said.

Uppdaterad 2008-01-21

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