MWILA NTAMBI, Kitwe
THE story of Kawambwa Tea is not new to the average Zambian. Situated in Kawambwa District of Luapula Province, the tea company was in the recent and distant past, not shy of making it in the news, although often for the wrong reasons.
From year in and out, the tea company was often cited for failure to pay its workers, a situation that led to repeated work stoppages and reduced productivity.
Furthermore, several attempts by civic leaders and members of Parliament to revive the fortunes of the company, which most people considered to be the ‘pride’ of Kawambwa, failed to yield the desired results as every investor that took over management of the company failed to bring it out of ‘deep waters’.
It is therefore not surprising that many representatives of the people of Kawambwa both at local government and parliamentary levels, openly spoke of how the challenges at Kawambwa Tea Company were negatively affecting household incomes in the area and increasing poverty for the rural people that depended on the company for survival.
All this was done in the hope that someone out there would hear their cry and make a practical intervention to save the company from total collapse.
Once a vibrant firm during the Kenneth Kaunda regime, Kawambwa Tea Company later joined the ranks of non-performing parastatal firms that were failing to remain afloat with little or no government support.
The Kawambwa Tea fields and company were established in 1969 as a Government project and commercialised in 1975. It became a company in 1976 after the establishment of a factory and processing equipment.
The company was manufacturing tea branded and packaged as Kawambwa Tea for close to 20 years. It was privatised in 1996 in line with economic liberalisation policies of the new regime of President Frederick Chiluba.
However, the private sector failed to manage both the tea fields and the factory. Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation (ZAFFICO) director of plantations Cosmas Nshingo says most private firms that attempted to run the tea company failed because they thought it had no business sense.
The challenges at the company continued until early last year, when the current Government appointed ZAFFICO to try and revive the fortunes of the tea company. Hence, the firm is now called ZAFFICO Tea and not Kawambwa Tea as previously known.
Although there is a lot of work to be done in making the tea company internationally competitive, Dr Nshingo is confident that it can be done.
Dr Nshingo says the starting point in reviving the fortunes of the tea company is by repairing the irrigation system at the tea fields. He said at the moment, there is no functional irrigation system and this makes it difficult for the firm to properly water the fields during the dry season.
He said the tea fields have a total farm land of 1500 hectares with a suitable site for an additional 500 hectares and for this to be done, the irrigation system has to be in perfect condition. He said properly managed tea fields have a lifespan of 100 years, thus the importance of a good irrigation system for the survival of the fields and the factory cannot be over-emphasised. Currently, only 423 hectares is in use.
He adds that the establishment of a tea nursery is also important to the revival cause and will be done. Dr Nshingo projects that by the first quarter of 2019, the tea nursery will have been established.
Apart from establishing a tea nursey, ZAFFICO will also consider introducing a wide variety of tea crops that are drought and disease-resistant. He also said the tea fields have not received any fertiliser in a long time, hence the need to start applying fertiliser consistently to improve the yields.
One of the biggest challenges facing the factory at the tea plantation is the obsolete and dilapidated equipment currently used in processing process. From the time the plantation was commercialised in 1975 to date, there has been no modern equipment bought for the factory. Despite having a capacity of processing up to 30, 000 kilogrammes of tea leaves every day, this has not been achieved in the recent years.
“We want to eliminate too much handling. There is a lot of handling in the factory. With funds permitting, we want to overhaul the entire factory equipment, but first we need a productive estate that can feed into the factory,” Dr Nshingo said.
Because labour is a key factor in achieving any production target, ZAFFICO is wary of the need to improve the skills and competencies of the workforce both in the tea fields and the factory to match modern trends.
To sum it up, Dr Nshingo said all the ideas aimed at reviving the fortunes of the plantation and the factory will be documented in a five-year strategic plan that is being worked on.
And ZAFFICO Tea chief operations officer Ackson Zulu said the western and eastern side tea fields at the plantation are between 46 and 48 years old. He said there are two cropping seasons categorised as peak and slack. During the slack period, the moisture levels in the tea fields are relatively low and this is why the irrigation system needs rehabilitation to enable workers to feed the fields with enough water.
ZAFFICO managing director Frighton Sichone is a happy man because his organisation has settled all the salary arrears owed to the workers at the former Kawambwa Tea Company and has started on a new slate.
Furthermore, Mr Sichone also wants ZAFFICO Tea to become competitive internationally and also become the preferred tea locally.
“We want our tea that is grown in Zambia to be processed here and properly packaged here. We want it to compete with Five Roses and other preferred tea brands,” Mr Sichone said.
He urged the Zambian public to look out for ZAFFICO Tea, which will be on the market soon, and also ensure that they support it.
Clearly, ZAFFICO has a vision and a plan for both the tea estates and factory in Kawambwa District. Whether or not Zambians will be captivated by the locally produced tea considering the competition it will face from imported products remains to be seen.
As for the people of Kawambwa, expectations are high. Priscilla Ngolwe, a school -leaver, is hopeful that one day, ZAFFICO Tea will employ her and give her an income to support her family.
But as Dr Nshingo earlier guided, it will be important for the local people to equip themselves through training to fit into the competencies required for the mammoth task ahead – to make ZAFFICO Tea the pride of Kawambwa.