Kenya is the world’s third-largest tea producer. Tea accounts for more than 25% of the nation’s export earnings, and directly or indirectly employs 4 million Kenyans. The country’s tea industry is dominated by small farmers (more than 560,000 farmers grow tea).
Nearly all of the tea produced is a brisk black variety that is mostly used in English breakfast and Earl Grey blends. But Kenya’s state-run Tea Research Institute is engaged in research that may change that.
The organization has spent 25 years developing a new purple tea variety, officially named “TRFK 306.” It was released for commercial production about four years ago. It is high-yielding, resistant to drought and certain pests, and has large leaves, which makes hand harvesting easier. It also holds the promise of use as a medicinal product; some research suggests that the anthocyanins it contains may help protect against certain diseases.
“Anthocyanins have capacity to scavenge for free radicals and thus are good antioxidants,” says Stephen Karori Mbuthia, a biochemist at Egerton University, Kenya’s premier agricultural public university, and lead author of a recent study.
A challenge? The purple teas require a different processing method, and there are few places for farmers to take their harvest.