The recent election of John Chebochok as Director of the Tegat Tea Factory in Ainamo Electoral Area has sparked significant controversy within the Kenyan tea industry.

The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) has issued a statement to address the concerns and clarify its position regarding the election process and the subsequent backlash from key stakeholders.

KTDA, a private agency owned by over 650,000 smallholder tea farmers across 54 companies, reassured stakeholders of its commitment to high standards of corporate governance.

The agency emphasized that it has no direct role in managing the election of smallholder tea factory directors, a responsibility designated to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) under the Tea Act 2020.

"The Tea Act 2020 was enacted by the Kenyan government to reform the tea sector. The reforms changed the process of electing factory directors from the use of shares as a basis of voting to the 'one-farmer-one vote' system and the use of independent bodies to manage the elections," the KTDA stated.

Chebochok's candidacy has been marred by a BBC documentary from February 2023 titled "Sex for Work: The true cost of our tea," which featured allegations of unethical behaviour.

Despite these allegations, the IEBC cleared him for the election.

KTDA stressed that each factory is an independent entity with its own rules for director elections, and it is up to the shareholders of the Tegat Tea Factory to make the final decision on Chebochok’s directorship.

"John Chebochok was cleared through this process to run for directorship at Tegat Tea Factory (which also owns Toror tea factory) despite being featured in the BBC expose of February 2023," KTDA highlighted.

"We call upon all our tea buyers, stakeholders, and partners to allow us to work with all the concerned players and authorities to resolve concerns raised regarding his nomination due to the legal and procedural complexities outlined above."

In response to Chebochok's election, major international buyers of Kenyan tea, including James Finlay Limited and LIPTON Teas and Infusions, have expressed serious concerns.

James Finlay Limited requested KTDA to remove Chebochok from his position, citing the documentary’s findings and the impact on their supplier relationship and the reputation of KTDA.

"We are writing to request that you immediately remove John Chebochok from his position as Director of Toror Tea Factory, a KTDA factory," Ben Woolf of James Finlay Limited stated.

"Allowing Mr. Chebochok to hold a position of authority in the KTDA serves to counteract the excellent work being done by many stakeholders across Kenya and globally to tackle the issue of sexual and gender-based violence on tea farms."

Similarly, LIPTON Teas and Infusions urged for Chebochok’s removal and announced an immediate cessation of purchases from the Tegat/Toror factory until the issue is resolved.

"We respectfully urge the relevant authorities to reverse his appointment and take necessary actions to ensure that such cases cannot occur in the future," Bruno Laine of LIPTON Teas and Infusions stated.

"We have immediately ceased purchasing from the Tegat/Toror factory and are urging our industry partners to do the same until appropriate measures are taken to address this serious issue."

KTDA reaffirmed its zero-tolerance policy on gender-based violence, sexual harassment, corruption, and any unethical behaviour, condemning acts that pose a risk to the sector.

As the process of confirming the directors is yet to be completed, the tea industry watches closely to see how the situation will unfold, with significant implications for the governance and ethical standards of Kenyan tea production.