Plant closure a headache for Honde Valley tea producers

ABOUT 1 000 small scale tea growers in Honde Valley have been left stranded after the sole buyer of their crop, Eastern Highlands Plantations Limited (EHPL), shut down its tea processing plant for three months to facilitate routine maintenance.

The factory was shut down on June 1 and is expected to remain closed until August 31.

Farmers who operate under the Honde Valley Tea Growers Association, said they are facing their worst season in decades owing to the numerous challenges that have bedevilled the industry, coupled with the factory shutdown.

Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union tea commodity chairman, Mr Charles Sanhanga said although most farmers had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the high cost of labour and inputs, the closure of the factory would likely cause the worst financial damage to many of them.

“In the past, we had two factories that were operating in Honde Valley, EHPL and Katiyo Tea Estates. This meant that if one company closed for maintenance, we would continue selling to the other. But since the closure of Katiyo a few years back, we are left with nowhere to sell,” he said.

Farmers have traditionally recorded low production figures during the off-peak months between May and October, when they have to wait for three days before they can transport their crop to ensure there are adequate volumes to feed the factory.

During peak season (November to April), farmers in the area produce an average of 200 000kg per month, but this period the factory is not taking any of the available tea because of the temporary closure.

“We are struggling as outgrowers as our tea is over maturing in the field. We cannot afford to hire labour to harvest the tea and we are forced to throw it away since we cannot sell it. But its either we prune it or lose out,” he said.

EHPL general manager Mr Pratap Pareekh said the closure of the factory was necessitated by the need to carry out maintenance of their machinery and the off-peak season was the best time to do this.

He said production was low during this time of the year and the quality of the crop was also not good, thus fetching poor prices on the global market.

“We usually get less than 10 percent of our normal production figures and since we had to do some maintenance and servicing of the machinery, we decided to do it now. We are encouraging the outgrowers to prune their crop now and as the temperatures start rising and we receive some rains. It will shoot and then we will proceed with processing,” he said.

Mr Pareekh said the global market was flooded with tea from all over the world and it did not make financial sense to sell poor quality tea when the prices were already low.

He said the factory could open earlier than August 31, once temperatures started rising.

Honde Valley farmers produce some of the best tea in the world with 95 percent of production at the EHPL factory earmarked for export markets.

For years, small scale farmers have played a crucial role in the production of tea, which has improved the livelihoods of thousands of families.–

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