It’s a beehive of activity as a group women move back and forth ferrying bags of freshly picked green leaf tea from their plantations onto a waiting delivery truck.
The tea growers seem unfazed by the mildly hot mid-morning weather on this sunny Tuesday morning.
Speciose Uwimana, one of the farmers, explains that the tea is being transported to a local factory for processing. Uwimana says tea growing is the primary employer and main source of income for residents, especially rural women.
Currently, she works and sells her produce under Kobacyamu, a tea growers’ cooperative, which brings together 1,782 rural women, among other members.
“I started growing tea 10 years ago and I have gained a lot from it… I no longer depend on my husband for the basics,” narrates the resident of Mabende village, Rugogwe cell in Nyamagabe District.
When Uwimana got married, she feared she would be restricted to just a housewife and mother who depends on the husband for basic needs. However, not wanting to be a burden and dependent on her husband for all her needs, she later took time to understand the neighbourhood.
She realised that tea growing was the main activity in the area. This encouraged her join other women in tea growing for self-reliance and financial independence.
Uwimana says that her decision was influenced by the fact that she had been depending on her spouse for all her needs.
“I needed to do something to change this state of affairs and I saw hope in growing tea since I had discovered that there was a ready market for the beverage,” she explains.
With the decision made, she worked hard to raise Rwf100,000 which she used to buy a neglected tea plantation that had about 800 trees. The move has paid off as Uwimana now is also a bread winner for the family and financial self-reliant.
The tea grower boasts of Rwf400,000 savings with a local Saving and Credit Cooperative (SACCO). Part of her earlier savings has been invested in different income-generating activities such as cattle rearing and expansion of the tea estates by the farmer and her husband, Emmanuel Ntabanganyinka, Uwimana explains.
She produces an average of 250 kilogrammes of green leaf worth over Rwf58,700 during a bad season. A kilogramme of tea costs Rwf234.9 presently, up from Rwf228.4 previously. She picks tea three times a month from her estate. A portion of her earnings is deposited in the SACCO as savings to cater for the children’s school fees later on and also to secure the family’s financial future, says the 40-year-old tea grower. The mother of three says that her family started with 800 tea trees, but this has since increased to over 2,100 trees.
Tea growing promoting self-reliance among women
For 30 year-old Leoncie Murereneza, tea growing has elevated rural women standing, gaining them respect their families and community generally.
Murereneza says that women are working with their husbands in tea estates to improve the welfare of their families and income levels.
“Women are no longer treated as objects or servants in homes,” Murereneza says.
The mother of the two joined the tea sector over a year ago, and now supports her husband Bosco Nsabimana to provide for the family’s needs.
The resident of Kitabi sector and her family have been able to buy two more tea estates, cows as well as save for a rainy day using earnings from their tea plantation (of 5,000 trees).
Tea growing helping change stereotypes about women
Pascal Nsabimana, the president of the Kobacyamu Cooperative, says women in the tea sector have helped to change people’s mind-set about the role of women in society, particularly in homes. He notes that of the 4,725 Kobacyamu Cooperative members, 1,782 are women.
“Men have come to respect and acknowledge women as the backbone of families’ development because of their contribution thanks to earnings women get from tea growing,” he says.
The coop chief adds that some of the ideas that have helped improve the performance of Kobacyamu were from women members, noting gone are the days when women were confined to the kitchen.
Nsabimana says the cooperative produced about 4,627,107 kilogrammes of green leaf tea last year, thanks to the contribution of women members.
The effects of climate change have impacted the tea sector as rainfall patterns change and extreme weather conditions increase, which make the life for small-scale tea farmers hard, authorities and farmers say.
In addition, bad roads are a big challenge for tea farmers in rural areas like Nyamagabe.
She adds that insufficient seed supply especially for people who are just starting is still a challenge.
The tea growers say that using traditional approaches of picking tea affects production and quality, adding the method “is not efficient” while some farmers are ill-equipped in the trade.
Case for tea growing in Southern Province
Marie Claire Rukundo, who heads Tea Growers Cooperatives Union of Nyungwe (Ucothenyu) says that tea growing in Southern Province, especially in Nyamagabe District, has been one of the main drivers development and improved earnings among households in the area.
“There is hardly any family that doesn’t live on tea growing. It is one of the main crops and a golden opportunity of employment creation,” he says.
The province boasts of three tea factories, with Nyamagabe and Nyaruguru as the only districts where tea is grown.
Rukundo says tea plantations cover over 3,016 hectares, which are operated by four cooperatives - Kobacyamu, Coothenya, Cothenk and Coothemuki - that comprise a total of 10,205 tea growers.
The farmers are also grouped under one umbrella association known by its acronym of Ucothenyu.
Ucothenyu produced over 9.733 million kilogrammes of tea last year, according to figures from the association.