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Arthur Njuguna Komo: The Oldest Tea Farmer in the World

by Jane Pettigrew

World Tea News Contributor

KAMUNYAKA, Kenya

Grandpa ArthurAs Arthur Njuguna Komo enjoys his morning cup of Kenyan tea, he gazes out with pride over the land where he grew up and where he has grown tea for more than 50 years.

Imagine his pleasure and sense of achievement, for the tea he is drinking is his own tea, grown and harvested on the ancestral land that his father and grandfather farmed before him. At the age of 110, watching the harvest from season to season, relishing the flavor and strength of the tea he has cultivated with his own hands, knowing that the profits from his tea have been invested for his children's future, is truly an old man's dream.

"My grandfather was born in 1901," his granddaughter Joy Njuguna says, "although he doesn't know exactly when as there are no records of the day and month." Arthur Komo's father, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, was a rich and prominent farmer who had 10 wives and owned 4,000 acres of land in Kamunyaka Village, a fertile region in the foothills of Mt. Kenya in Gatundu district, Central Kenya. Unlike surrounding tribes such as the pastoralist Maasai, the Kikuyu were farmers that had begun farming the very fertile volcanic land around Mt. Kenya and the Kenyan highlands in the 16th century.

Joy explained, "My grandmother was Arthur's father's fourth wife and as he grew up surrounded by a little clan of boisterous siblings, my grandfather learned to work and play hard, to find things out for himself, to fend for himself and develop skills and talents by his own industrious approach to life." He received no formal education but learned to read and write and developed a strong entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen over the years.

In his teens, he left home and found work in the town of Lari to the south west of his village and trained as a truck driver. But by the time he reached the age of 23, it was time for him to return home for all the initiation ceremonies that would make him a fully recognised and proud member of his tribe. Then, having married his first wife, he decided to settle into farming various crops on the family land that he loves so much.

A NEW CROP

In 1959 colonial agricultural officers "appeared at the farm one day to persuade my grandfather to switch from the family's subsistence farming to cash crop enterprises, including the cultivation of tea," she says. Tea consumption was increasing around the world and the growing popularity of
the tea bag was creating a demand for more small leafed, quick brewing, strong tea. Kenya was just the place to grow and manufacture this tea and Arthur was keen to learn more. He enrolled for classes where he and other like-minded farmers learned about the cultivation and harvesting of the new crops. He planted 50 acres with tea and pineapples and continued to grow vegetables on other parts of his land.

Since those early days of tea cultivation on Arthur's family farm, he has played an important role in expanding tea production in the country. He became one of the most prominent tea farmers in the area and, as well as still farming himself, he leases out parts of his land to share croppers who also grow and harvest tea and share in the profits gained from tea sales. Over the years, he divided his farm to give land to his married sons and to accommodate his growing family. Today he and his extended family own and grow all the tea on land that is home to 9 million tea bushes which are picked by 3,451 registered farmers. Arthur personally trains and supervises the pickers to ensure that they pluck only the top bud and two young leaves at the end of each new shoot.

And not only has Arthur helped, supported and trained other local farmers, he has also worked hard to protect their rights and ensure a better future for all. With his son Samuel's support (Samuel is a prominent politician in Kenya), he has campaigned for farm rights, for better pay and for more control. It was as a result of pressure from these two men that the KTDA (Kenya Tea Development Agency) was established in 1964. The agency encourages and facilitates the production of the highest quality tea while at the same time assuring that the farmers and factory workers benefit from the excellence of the tea and from the profits gained. Today, the KTDA encompasses the work of 560,000 farmers and more than 65 tea processing factories, and it owns packing plants and supervises the Mombasa tea auction.

Arthur was also responsible in 2003 for the construction of a new factory in the area and the first black tea made there was sold at the Mombasa auction on 7th October that year. Joy says that Arthur "is proud that not only did he influence the farmers to lobby for the new factory but that his children and now grandchildren can follow in his footsteps and benefit from the new facility."

Never a man to get stuck in a rut, Arthur has adapted throughout his life to the inevitable changes that have influenced his life and that of his family. As if not busy enough already, Arthur still finds the time and energy to debate tea prices with other farmers and discuss day-to-day issues relating to the tea trade. He plays an active part in local politics, working to improve the industry and the lives of his neighbours and he has recently built a leaf collection centre on his land so that farmers from the surrounding areas do not have to travel so far every day with their harvested leaf. Instead they deliver it to Arthur's farm and it gets collected from there.

He is a spiritual man who values his tribal history and reveres his family and their achievements. But he has adapted easily to a changing world, finding new ways of working, thinking to the future as well as the past. And in the calmer family moments, he loves chatting with his grandchildren, telling them stories about his tribe, his parents and grandparents, his own adventures and experiences, inspiring them to work hard, seek a better way for the good of the family, the village and the nation.

His guiding principle, according to Joy, is an old Kikuyu proverb, "A little idleness lost a tilled field"! Joy now sells teas from her family's farms and, in honor of her grandfather, she has created a blend that she has aptly named 'Grandpa's Anytime Tea'. A fitting tribute to one man's amazing life
in tea!

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