Twenty five years ago, Thomas Sinayobye ventured into tea farming.
The resident of Tumba, Karongi District in Northern Province wanted to walk into his father’s footsteps. At the time many advised him against the venture but he ignored them and followed his dream. Today the 48-year-old is reaping a fortune from tea farming. From less than an acre of land, today he boasts of a tea plantation on 7 hectares.
Also from just 2 employees, 20 years ago, Sinayobye currently employs more than 50 people.
Currently, the president of COOTHEGIM tea cooperative in Karongi District, the father of six says he was inspired by his father to take on tea farming as an economic activity.
“Most looked at tea farming as time consuming venture that would not get then quick cash; however my determination to take what my father had started to the next level was another motivating factor,” Sinayobye says.
Sinayobye says he started with less than a hectare of land adjacent to his father’s tea farm back in 1998.
He says with the little experience gained while working for his father on the family farm, it was time for him to go independent.
He says the idea was to take what was the family’s only source of income to another level by introducing modern agri-practices to generate more income.
“It was from tea farming that our parents were able to raise money to put food on the table; therefore I felt it was an honor to follow in my parents’ footsteps,” he says.
Sinayobye adds that he began small with only two employees working on one hectare of tea farm. It was important that I begin small as I acquired more skills and expertise, he says
This helped in terms of management, but also the desire to become better because growing tea requires a lot of patience and consistency.
Because tea takes long to mature (between 4 to 5 years) Sinayobye says he diversified into food crops like Maize, potatoes and wheat to support his income.
Due to lack of experience and skills about, his first yields were bad and characterized by low productivity.
His first harvest was less than 200kgs of green tea due to the weather vagaries.
“ My biggest worries were always dry spells and heavy rains that often affected the quality,” he explains.
I never could have imagined waiting for almost 4 years to harvest that less, he says adding that it was out of determination that he was able to persist and make a turn around.
Forming a cooperative
As part of the strategy to increase his productivity, Sinayobye mobilized fellow tea farmers and formed COOTHEGIM tea cooperative which currently owns 10 percent shares in the Gisovu factory.
According to Sinayobye, the formation of the cooperative greatly enhanced not only his personal productivity, but that of other farmers as well.
“In 2007, we were producing less than 1 ton of tea per hectare; however that has since increased to more than 7 tons, thanks to the cooperative,” he says. He points out that being a leader motivates him to think of more innovative ways to maximize profits.
Prolonged weather vagaries - dry spells, heavy rains and floods, as well as high interest rates have been some of the big challenges he has experienced so far.
“Tea farming is capital intensive and requires a lot of time and attention,” he says adding that banks are often not willing to give credit to farmers which affects the sector’s productivity.
The situation is usually compounded by effects of price fluctuation on the international market and factories that don’t want to give a fair deal when it comes to pricing.
“More so poor rural infrastructure road network and storage facilities still pause a serious challenge to the sector,” he says.
Besides, the concept of value addition among most farmers is still a challenge despite relentless efforts from the National Agriculture Export Board (NAEB)
Message to government
The tea expert calls on government to increase credit to farmers.
“May be government should rethink its decision on the establishment of an agriculture bank that will only focus on farmers interests or even work with banks to ensure farmers get their fair share when it comes to credit funding to the sector,” he says, adding that the later should also look into the firm gate price to protect farmers from exploitation. The farmer also advises his counterparts to equally embrace value addition and crop diversification to remain competitive. In line with this, government has already drafted a new handling model to boost quality tea exports along the value chain. This according to NAEB is a great step towards increasing tea export receipts to $94.9 million by 2018.
He says that to increase the average production level of tea to more than 3,000 metric tonnes of dry tea per annum will require concerted efforts and strong partnerships between investors (factories) and farmers.
From less than an acre of land, he currently boasts of 7 hectares of tea plantation and his annual output has since increased from less than 3 tonnes of tea to more than 9 tonnes in the past 10 years.
And it’s from this increased production that Sinayobye now earns millions from what started out as a mere passion and love for tea.
“I have been able to invest in my children’s education and other sectors including horticulture, he says.
He has set his eyes on the export business and value addition through quality processing and packaging.
He now plans to establish a tea processing plant in Northern Province to further maximize profits.
Tips on tea growing
According to the expert, Tea plants typically fare best in acidic soils and regions with heavy rainfall (around 40 inches per year) which makes Rwanda conducive for tea farming.
Sinayobye says that tea can be grown from a seed or stem cutting taken from an existing plant.
However, if you are growing from seed, germination will take about four weeks. Therefore it’s imperative to cover the seeds lightly with soil and keep it damp and warm,” he says adding that using seeds, means waiting for some good time before the first harvest.
It takes at least 4 years to get a plant that will produce enough leaves for you to make a harvest, he says.
Using soil that is slightly acidic increases production. He however says that it is important to maintain the right acidity.
It is also advised to pick the leaves by hand for better quality during harvesting time.