Privat Tiburce Massanga | July 18, 2011
The normally calm tea-producing hills of Burundi lost their calm in recent months. The reason: refusal by tea producers to sell their products to the Office de Thé Burundais (OTB), the longstanding state-run buyer of tea. They prefer to sell to Prothem, a local private company that buys tea leaves at a higher price.
In Burundi, 78% of tea plantations are owned by small-scale farmers. Tea is the second biggest cash crop in the country after coffee. It accounts for 10 to 15% of the national GDP. Growing tea is an important source of income for more than 60,000 households in upland areas.
Générose Sindakira is a tea producer in the Kibimba hills, in the central province of Mwaro. He explains, “I will sell my tea to whoever gives me the most money. Between the 200 FBU (US$0.16) offered by Prothem and the 140 FBU (US$0.12) offered by the OTB, the choice is clear. Just let us sell our tea to whomever we want and stop sending police officers after us.”
Last April, police fired shots in the air in a tea-producing region in central-western Burundi to scare off tea leaf traders who were dealing with Prothem. The discord began when Prothem opened a processing plant in April of this year.
Producers see many advantages in selling to Prothem. Their leaves are processed more quickly and they get a better purchase price with no holdback to repay farmer loans. On top of that, weighing and calculating is more accurate, farmers are paid more quickly, and Prothem provides service on weekends.
Juvénal Nsavyimana also grows tea. He bitterly remembers when he used to deal with OTB: “Every time, they retained 30 FBU per kilogram for loan repayment. We never knew when [we] were finished paying. They gave us other credits before we even finished paying the first. Even more revolting was how they would, for example, note that you had 10 kilograms on your seller’s sheet even though the scale indicated 10.5 kilograms.”
Competition is fierce between Prothem and OTB purchase points in Gatare, ten kilometres from the processing factory. In two hours, OTB buyers purchase two kilograms while Prothem’s buyers get 50. “Ever since our competitors are taking the tea leaves from us, we’re bored waiting for customers who do not come,” said an OTB buyer who requested anonymity. Customers continue to bring tea leaves to the OTB, but most are just waiting to pay off their fertilizer debt before switching to Prothem.
This switch worries the government. They are afraid that OTB-run plants will not survive. Odette Kayitesi is the Minister of Agriculture and Livestock. Last May, she said, “This is unacceptable and we call on the Minister of the Interior to crack down and suspend the activities of this [Prothem] plant that threatens the operation of our plants.”
But no official action has been taken so far. Local police have been told by government officials to chase away Prothem trucks that try to purchase and collect tea along village roads. But farmers now supply the Prothem factory by bringing their leaves in baskets which they carry on their heads or on their bicycles.