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Kenyan herbal tea on the rise

Walking around his herb nursery, The African Herb Company at the foot of Mount Kenya, Jean-Pierre Dekker (47) constantly pops leaves and flowers in his mouth. They taste like, lemon, wasabi, garlic and apple. Unique products with names like lemon verbena, apple blossom and cressabi, which are eagerly bought in Europe. Just like the pepquino, a tiny watermelon which tastes of cucumber, which is served to business class plane passengers, among others.

"Together with the Dutch company Koppert Cress I am always looking for new products and flavours," says Dekker. He picks the flower of a succulent and pops it in his mouth. "These flowers decorate your plate in an exclusive restaurant, but you can just eat them as well." What he is saying is that a lot more plants are edible than you think. At the edge of Nanyuki, 200 kilometres north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Dekker grows herbs such as thyme, rosemary, lavender, verbena and mint on 15 hectares. Combinations of this are sold in the Netherlands as infusions, fresh herbal tea with a special flavour. "An innovative project," says Dekker. "And a challenge, as you have to wait and see how the sales will go. And that makes it extra interesting for me."

Dekker came to Kenya in May 2002 after working as an export manager
for his father and uncle's company, J.P. Beemsterboer BV in Warmenhuizen. Together with a Dutch partner he started a 40 hectare rose nursery in Ol Kalou, which they sold in 2010. Due to his wife, primatologist Yvonne de Jong, he then relocated himself to the edge of Nanyuki, where he bought 400 acres and started a herb farm with the Englishman Nick Emson. 
"Herb cultivation turned out to be a gap in the market," says Dekker. "We focussed on the top segment of the market from the start and grew high value herbs. Controls by government institutions like Kephis (Kenya Plant Health Inspection Service) is strict. Maximum residue levels are closely monitored. There are critical supermarkets and consumers in Europe. Only the best growers remain. "The African Herb Company mainly sells to importers in Europe, who supply to supermarkets in Germany, England and the Netherlands (Albert Heijn for instance). "We can supply fresh products of constant quality all year round," Dekker explains the advantage of growing herbs in an African country such as Kenya. "Nanyuki has very heavy ground, which is good for the quality and flavour of the herbs. So does the altitude (1950m) and the sun. The disadvantage is that the plants could drown during heavy rainfall. This means you have to take extra precautions against it." Dekker talks of a learning process. "What we're doing now, we do well. But it definitely takes two or three years to master it all." Nick Emson's years of experience were essential to this. "He has worked for multiple horticultural companies, had a lot of experience with supermarkets in Europe and has done audits for GlobalGap. And he knows his way around the not always transparent Kenyan licensing system." While Emson is mainly found out in the fields, Dekker spends most of his time working on sales and marketing. Their workforce varies, depending on the season, from 30 to 80 people, mainly women. "They cause less problems than men and are a constant factor in our company."
Meanwhile the demand from Europe for quality herbs is increasing. "We now supply between six to ten tonnes per week, but want to raise the production over the next two years by at least 15 hectares. We may then start growing basil and chive."

Herbal tea
When Dekker came into contact with Rob Baan of Koppert Cress, producer of micro vegetables in Monster, in 2011, and both looked at the possibilities for collaboration, the idea to make and sell fresh herbal tea was born. With the help of a PSI subsidy (the now ended Private Sector Investment programme from the ministry for Foreign Affairs) both companies bundled their power and founded Koppert Cress 0.0' (the herb farm is just above the equator, hence the 0 degrees) to storm the European market with their new product. After months of extensive tests and trials four types of mixes, known as infusions, were put together: lavender-mint, verbena-lavender, thyme-mint and verbena.

In a new packaging station at the edge of the herb fields, a few women sort the herbs on long tables, which are bound together with a string and a label and then put in a plastic bag. In boiled water the fresh herbs - which remain fresh for two weeks if cooled - give off their unique flavour. Dekker: "In the six months plus that the infusions have been on the market now, we have had a lot of positive reactions from our customers. I have a huge drive to produce as much as possible as soon as possible. I would rather have 30 hectares in production today than tomorrow. Everything always goes too slow for me, but my desires aren't always that realistic." 

Because it is a new product, a lot of promotion is needed in Europe, emphasises the Dutchman. "You have to put a lot of energy and money into marketing. We are focussing on wholesalers like Makro and Sligro, where there are a lot of special seminars for catering employees." 

It is not just the company itself that is profiting from the PSI investment. The local community is also reaping the fruits. The local school with 500 students, the police station and a community centre are all connected to the four kilometre long electricity line which has been laid down. A dam has been built to improve the water supply in the area, a training centre has been created and an internet connection made just for the school. "We also started a neighbourhood watch in collaboration with the police and helped pay for a car for 'rapid response' to keep the area safe," according to Dekker.

Besides bureaucracy and management problems ('there's always something') logistics remains the biggest challenge for a company that trades in fresh products. "Transport and cooling capacity are crucial and it always costs a lot of energy to get everything to its destination on time and in good condition."

But Dekker's enthusiasm isn't tempered by this. "We continue to develop our products and bring new ones onto the market. This country has endless possibilities."

Source: Berichten Buitenland
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