By Kalema Musisi Solomon
Until the late 90’s, coffee, cotton and tea were the three inseparable export cash crops known to many Ugandans.
However, with a major stakeholder shift to investment in and promotion of coffee, public sensitisation on growing of cotton and tea dwindled greatly despite the latent health benefits and positive socio economic implications of the latter, derived from the plant Camellia sinensis.
Tea as a cash crop was introduced in Uganda in the Botanic Gardens in Entebbe district in 1909 and the commercialization tea cultivation started in the late 1920’s due to increased realization of the favourable bimodal precipitation pattern, high altitudes, temperate temperatures and high rainfall in Uganda.
The sub-sector was however greatly affected by the expulsion of the Asians by the President of Uganda General Idi Amin Dada during the 1970’s impeding tea production from 1974 to 1985.
The Asians were the major investors in the cultivation of tea for commercial purposes and therefore the detriment of their expulsion was reflected in the collapse of plantations across the country during a period of warfare and political turmoil coupled with unfavourable government policies.
The rejuvenation of tea production was boosted by the formation of the Toro and Mityana Tea Company, TAMTECO by a British entrepreneur Mitchel Cotts in the early 1980’s, as a joint venture with the Ugandan Government enhancing an increase in output from 1,700 tons in 1981 to 5,600 tons in 1985.
The major reinforcement resulted from the government’s initiation and implementation of a four year national Tea Rehabilitation Programme between 1986 and 1990 that was followed by a five year initiative by the European Union, from 1990 to 1995, the Smallholder Tea Development Programme.
Production of tea is therefore undertaken by both large scale investors and out growers with marketing and bulking carried out through structures such as the Uganda Tea Growers Corporation, UTGC that was created by an Act of Parliament in 1966 and also manages the four estates of Igara, Mpanga, Mabale and Kayonza in Western Uganda.
The government implemented liberalization policy reforms such as the removal of the Uganda Tea Authority monopoly on exports and the valuation of export proceeds at the market exchange rate and also doubled prices paid to tea producers to reduce market imperfections arising from pricing in 1988.
Tea as a beverage is marketable in various flavours, making diversification much more possible and green tea in particular contains antioxidants called polyphenols that are vital in maintaining healthy state of the brain parts in charge of regulating learning and memory.
From scientific study of tea, researchers in the field now rate tea as a major requirement in reducing risk of parkinson’s disease, heart attack, neurological and cardiovascular diseases and enhancing sugar processing in people with Type 2 diabetes.
The antioxidants in the beverage, if consumed in favourable amounts are said to have the potential of protecting against oral, skin, lung, colorectal, breast, esophagus, stomach, prostate and ovarian cancer among others.
In addition to that, a brewed cup of tea contains as low as four calories, a moderate amount of caffeine, tannin, B-complex vitamins and volatile oils that produce the flavours.
The high youth unemployment rate could also be further reduced by the production labour intensive requirement of tea cultivation if more large scale areas are put under cultivation in the different regions of the country.
Tea production however risks reduction if much of the promotional input is shifted to coffee creating a situation similar to what economists like Mancur Olson referred to as “institutional sclerosis” for major agricultural sector institutions and investors.
Despite having stood out on the international market as Africa’s third largest exporter of Tea as of 2010 with output of an estimated 45,000MT, most of Uganda’s tea production is now left to large companies due to limited popularization to smallholder farmers and private sector investors.
Enhancing value chain development of tea alongside coffee in the country will therefore be key in making Uganda a formidable competitor on the international agricultural market with other exporters like the neighbours Kenya whose total export peaked at 441.02 million kg’s in 2010.
The writer is the director of the Agribusiness and Investments at the Youth Development Platform Uganda