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    By George Munene

    Tea fieldsFor an industry that seemed to be working nearly 24 hours a day, especially during the rainy season, the tea industry in Tharaka Nithi county is bearing the toll of the Covid-19 p[revention measures surprisingly well.

    For while others involved in agriculture, such as fishermen and food transporters, have been granted exemptions to operate outside curfew hours, the tea sector is having to operate within strict 5am to 7pm timeframes. This has required a complete overhaul of the usual operating patterns by everyone in the value chain.

    Pre-Covid, tea farmers would take their day's delivery to collection points at any time of the day, with the blaring horn of factory lorries marking deliveries that arrived even in the dead of the night.

    For farmers who missed out on having their tea weighed and loaded, all they could do is wait in the hope that by the next round of pick-ups, particularly during the peak harvest – their buds had not rotted.

    Now, however, pickers get less time working on the bushes, as they have to be done by around 4pm to 5 pm. This gives farm owners time to weigh their day's pickings and pay them pickers  - as the mode of payment that's preferred by both tea farmers and pickers, versus older methods that paid by the size of area picked, time spent, or as a fixed day's wage.

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    The tea is then delivered to the local pick up points, either by 10am to 12pm to be picked up that afternoon for short-run deliveries, or by 6:30 pm to be picked up by the factory early the next morning for longer-distance deliveries.

    Being further away from the tea factory, which means making evening deliveries, disadvantages farms further, as their picking hours are further reduced in order to get tea weighed, loaded, delivered and back home by the 7pm curfew.

    The tea is then locked in for the night, until the 5 am pick-up the following day, when it's weighed and loaded onto the lorry.

    With the heavy rains, this is a period of increased harvests, meaning some farmers are even forced to lay their leaves under shelter outside, but there have been very few cases of theft, with police officers usually patrolling to enforce the curfew orders.

    Farmers in Tharaka Nithi have also been benefitted from a new private entrant into the tea space, the Njeru Tea Factory. The arrival of a local, private buyer has ensured there are no cases of tea going bad, which can normally happen when the collected tea volumes are high, and might have been worse still given that collection times are now shorter.

    To help the industry in keeping going, counties, such as Muranga, have given 120,000 free masks to be delivered to tea farmers through ten factories within the region.

    Tea factories such as Weru in Tharaka Nithi county have taken Covid-19 preventative measures by offering their farmers free masks and putting up washing points at tea delivery points across the county. Farmers are also urged to stick to the 1.5 meter rule while weighing and loading their tea.

    The company has also used its reach with the most rural of rural populations and carried out sensitisation efforts.

    However, with no Covid 19 infections within the Meru region (the nearest reported case being at neighbouring Isiolo), laxity is now seeping back in, with people no longer adhering to the rules as strictly as before.

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