July 1, 2018
Tea is currently grown on about 233,000 hectares in Kenya and is the largest export commodity in the country. It was first introduced to Kenya in 1903 from the Assam region of north east India by the British tea planter GWL Caine, whose seeds originated from wild tea bushes discovered in Assam in the 19th century. Clones from these Indian bushes have since been developed in research institutions in both India and Kenya and today the majority of tea grown in Kenya belongs to this type of Assamica tea (C. Sinensis var. assamica) and its hybrids. In 2017, over 397,000 tonnes of tea passed through the tea auction in Mombasa to proliferate through markets across the world from Karachi to London. Following many decades of transformation, development and innovation within the practices, infrastructures, social-material networks and business models that comprise the world of tea, Kenya has come to be responsible for 13% of global tea production which, during an era when tea is consumed in one form or another by roughly 70% of the world’s population, is an extraordinary feat.
Since April 2018 I have been collaborating with a team of scholars, scientists and artists on a project that has sought to understand and make sense of the story of tea, tracing the travel of seeds, clones, plants, planters and science between India and Kenya over the 20thand 21stcenturies. The primary objective of this research has been to follow the tea plant itself and to think about the relations that the plant forges with both humans and non-humans in the plantation and beyond. The project has sought to develop a multi-species ethnography that concerns the entire assemblage of beings thriving within and around the disciplined economic, ecological and social processes that underpin and sustain the tea industry. Recent debates around human/non-human relations, materiality and actor-network theory have raised important methodological challenges. The project has therefore aimed to explore new forms of collaborative interdisciplinary knowledge production between diverse scholarly, and other, registers of intellectual endeavour. With the tea plant itself as the main protagonist this research has drawn together new considerations and interpretations of the complex web of entanglements that link a multitude of objects and organisms together in both harmony and discord around the entity of tea in its many forms and states.
My own inquiries have led me to a range of locations within Kenya, from Mombasa to Kericho and from Nairobi to Meru. Further workshops and research trips are scheduled for the coming months, along with the development of an initial journal article outlining the work achieved so far.