Before coming to Kenya, I did know that many of the world’s tea is originally from Kenya. It was with pleasant anticipation that for a day trip, we went to Limuru, which is an hour drive from Nairobi to where Kiambethu Tea Farm is situated. It is said to be an old farm from the early 1900s that is now open to the public for viewing and lunching/picnicking.
Getting to Kiambethu Farm from Nairobi, we took the Wangige Road, which is a different route than the one we took to the Rift Valley. It slopes and curves through an old part of Nairobi, untouched by urban life. It reminds me of the back routes of New England. We pass a part of town called Banana Hill, where banana trade was plentiful but now is just stalls for random markets. Once you pass that hill, there is one or two coffee plantation but for the most part, coffee is not grown in that part of Kenya because of its wet and diverse climate.
Beyond that, you’re surrounded by both sides of sloping bright green lands. At first, it appears like rolling hills of nicely mowed grass. Indeed not! Instead, they are low bushes of tea trees. Hills after hills, tea grows, lined up in perfectly neat rows, well-manicured (and I learnt hand-done).
Kiambethu Tea Farm is only opened to the public at 11AM. We almost got lost, missing the sign which is actually across a cow farm. I was so busy looking for cows and horses that I didn’t see the sign.
The owner of the house is the grand-daughter of the original founder, who purchased the land in 1910 with over 600 acres of land but over time, it decreased with debt and payment. The owner’s mother originally opened the house to the public in 1970s, stripping some of the tea farm to make way for her garden, which is exceptional (see 2nd to last photo).
She showed us tea seeds, originally imported from India and then cloned for Kenya, which has perfect weather for tea growing. It is sunny all day and then rains heavily at night. The tea trees, if it is not picked on time, will eventually grow into a tree with flowers similar to magnolia. She still has a tea tree growing in her backyard.
As tea was served, she explained how tea grows. It cannot be sprayed with anything as the factories need the leaves as untainted as possible. Because of the high caffeination in the tea leaves, few bugs eat them. There is only one form of disease and it is from old trees that grow a fungus in the grown that can kill a crop.
Tea is hand-picked year round for best quality assurance. The top 2 budding leaves are used for white tea. The bottom half is for green and black tea. Green tea is less oxidized,and retains much of its original form, thus maintaining many of its vitamins. Somme of the stalk is also included in the tea process but it is not always the best part of the tea. Hence, people picker are better at discerning which leaves to pick than machines. After they are picked, it is sorted by hand before carting off to a factory where it goes through a process called CTC (cut, tear, crush), oxidized, dried, and repacked to be sent off to Mombasa, a city by the southern sea. There it is met by various tea houses. It is one of the biggest tea auction city. It is said that 50% of tea drunk in England comes from Kenya. All the flavored tea are made in Mombasa before it is shipped. Some of the biggest names include Lipton and Twinnings.
Of course, with this source of income, the government has decided to intervene by “providing fertilizer” to the tea farms. And thus, corrupted as it has been, they are “bargaining” with the small hold farmers. It was recently said that the tea quality has dropped. Could it be because the fertilizers are being withheld?
Apart from tea farming, which only 2 acres remain, there is another few acres of forest where medicinal trees, such as menthol and citronella are grown. Some have uses from its leaves, other its barks. You can see some people have chopped into the barks and our guide, Julius tells us that they are always out chasing people. Chuma (Swahili for iron), the dog is also one of our guide, obediently lying down in the area where Julius shows us.
In the forest, wild animals are also around. Monkeys and porcupines hide within the thick canopies. Many trees are imported also from India, their thick trunks and roots crushing many other plants.
We returned for lunch. The food is all freshly made and prepared, farm-to-table style. We even had home-made ice cream from the cows on the farm. After the refreshing meal with iced tea with ginger, I browsed through the garden where flowers of all sorts grow. I couldn’t name them all if I wanted to. Bees and wasps buzz around. You forget for a moment that you are at the edge of a growing city, life slows down, and the earth seems to stop spinning.
They use to say Kenya is like a paradise on Earth. It is moments like this that you see how beautiful the country is; it is untainted by politics, urbanization, pollution, and people population.