How Kenyan Tea Factories Are Chasing the Green-Economy Strategy

A field of tea leaves and solar panels with buildings and tall trees behind them
How Kenyan Tea Factories Are Chasing the Green-Economy Strategy

It is a sunny afternoon at Sotik highlands, which sit at the edge of Rift Valley and the Nyanza region of Kenya. The area is home to several tea estates that stretch further than the eye can see.

When approached from Kipkebe tea estate, the green scenery looks like hundreds if not thousands of football pitches, with tall trees and canopies completing the breathtaking view.

One is ushered here by the cool ambience and fresh air. Indeed, anyone who has visited tea factories in other parts of the country and seen smoke billowing from them spots the difference here.

The tea factories here are producing tons and tons of leaves, but there is one difference: the machines run on green energy.

Deep in Kipkebe Tea Factory’s farm and fertile tea-growing areas of Nyamira County, solar panels slowly rotate and follow the direction of sunlight. The slow rotation resonates with the slow pace of Kenya’s clean energy transition.

Like many other African countries, the Government of Kenya has not implemented any of its commitments to a clean energy transition as the 2030 deadline approaches.

According to Green Africa Foundation, 68% of Kenya’s population relies on wood fuel and other biomasses as their primary source of energy for cooking and other essentials. This is due to lack of affordability and constraints in access to reliable grid power, leading to significant deforestation and other detrimental environmental impacts.

The country’s agricultural activity produces huge amounts of agricultural waste ideal for biogas and biomass electricity generation.

Currently, Kenya depends on non-renewable energy sources to supply energy. This accounts for 54% as compared to 46% of renewable energy sources.

Kipekebe tea factory (a subsidiary of Sasini PLC) has adopted the use of solar energy after commissioning a mega solar power project.

According to the factory’s managing director Silas Njibwakale, they have a 1300-kilowatt-hour solar project that is distributed at 650 kilowatt-hours between the two factories, Kipkebe and Keritor.

‘‘Our solar station generates 650 kilowatt-hours which has helped us reduce the cost of production immensely. For instance, between September and December 2022, we saved around 9.6 million shillings,’’ he said.

‘‘We are working on sustainable goals as we try to mitigate effects of climate change. Going forward, 30% of our power consumption will be coming from solar.’’

The solar project was made possible after hiring solar equipment from a company called RentCo.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony at Kipkebe solar power station
Sasini PLC Chairman Mr. Jim McFie cutting the ribbon during the commissioning of the Kipkebe Solar Power Station / Credit: Dan Nyamanga.

‘‘This project is an agreement between RentCo and Sasini where RentCo is the supplier and they are charging us at very affordable rate,” Mr. Njibwakale said.

He added: “RentCo charges us 8.18 shillings per kilowatt-hour while electricity from Kenya Power charges 24 shillings.”

According to Sasini Group’s Chief Executive Officer Martin Ochieng, their solar power adoption is one of the climate change mitigation measures that their mother company (Sasini) is adopting as a sustainability plan to shift to green energy.

‘‘The reason why we are shifting to solar is because we are committed to our sustainability development goals, especially the affordable and clean energy,’’ said Ochieng. 

‘‘What is driving us is not cost. What is driving us is to leave the world better by generating power for renewable sources,’’ he insisted.

Geographically, Kenya is along the equator and receives sufficient sun that can be tapped to provide solar energy.

‘‘The problem has been people’s inability to invest in solar stations that can generate power to replace the more expensive and less green sources that we have been traditionally using,’’ he explained.

However, the solar power will only supplement energy in the factory.

‘‘We use wood fuel for firing up boilers and drying of the tea. It is the best way to generate boiler steam to dry the tea,’’ he said.

Julius Motaroki standing in front of solar panel addressing the media at the Kipkebe solar power station
RentCo General Manager Julius Motaroki addresses the media / Credit: Dan Nyamanga.

This means the factory will not fully transition to clean energy which requires the factory to entirely depend on renewable energy for its operations.

Deep in central Kenya’s hilly and fertile tea-growing county of Muranga is Makomboki tea factory.  Makomboki is approximately 73 kilometers north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Makomboki employees feed the factory’s boilers with briquettes of macadamia, cashew and rice husks mixed with sawdust.

“We have not used a single cubic meter of firewood in the last six months and we are excited about that,” said factory manager John Gitau.

In 2010, the International Trade Centre started a training project aimed at teaching Kenya’s tea producers climate change mitigation techniques.

Inspired by what they learned, Makomboki’s board of directors decided to shift their fuel source from firewood to briquettes.

Since then, the factory has scaled up its use of alternative fuels and weaned itself off its dependence on firewood.

Makomboki makes its briquettes thanks to a project designed by Living Earth Foundation, a United Kingdom-based charity working to tackle the energy challenge facing Kenyan tea producers.

Funding for the Makomboki briquette production plant was provided by the European Commission and British retailer Marks & Spencer, which buys tea from the factory.

The husks for the briquettes come from other factories within Muranga and Kiambu counties, while the sawdust is obtained from mills near Makomboki.

“Saw millers actually have a problem finding ways to dispose of their sawdust. We are helping them get rid of their waste,” said Gitau.

According to Gitau, in the six months that it takes the factory to produce around 2.5 million kilograms (5.5 million pounds) of tea, their boilers used to consume up to 10,000 cubic meters of wood—the equivalent of 30,000 trees. By swapping firewood for sawdust and briquettes, he said, Makomboki alone will have saved 60,000 trees in the course of a year.

“If the same practice is replicated by all the factories in Kenya, we will have saved a lot of trees and contributed to a better environment,” said Gitau.

Mary Njenga, a post-doctoral fellow of bioenergy at the World Agroforestry Center, hails the use of sawdust in the making of fuel briquettes.

As long as the sawdust is a byproduct of a sustainable timber system—in which new trees are planted to replace those that are felled—burning sawdust in a factory is preferable to saw millers setting piles of it alight in the open.

“Many timber producing areas burn sawdust (to get rid of it) but tea factories will be able to turn the sawdust into a resource,” she said.

According to Njenga, burning sawdust in a boiler releases fewer carbon emissions than if it were burned in a field.

Macademia briquettes displayed at a local market
Macadamia briquettes displayed at a local market; Makomboki tea factory uses these to heat up their boilers / Credit: Makomboki Factory.

Makomboki manager Gitau says tea factories that continue to use firewood can’t ignore their own roles in the adverse effects of climate change.

Meanwhile, Kenya Tea Development Agency Power Company (KPTC), a unit of Kenya Tea Development Agency, is seeking contractors for hydro-power plants able to produce as much as 10 megawatts.

According to the group’s CEO and MD Wilson Muthaura, the projects are at various stages of development, including four that are operational and seven under construction.

“The power generated from these hydro plants will be exported to the shareholders’ tea-processing factories and to the grid under signed power purchase agreements,” explained Muthaura.


This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Tidal Wave News on June 15, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: A Kipkebe tea factory solar power station / Credit: Dan Nyamnaga.

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