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Beverage Brokering and Beach Time in Mombasa

Ah, the beach. The mere mention of the word invokes feelings of relaxation.

But away from the white sands of the Indian Ocean, Mombasa is like many other coastal towns, with well-established tourist attractions, congested traffic, and an economy heavily dependent on the local port. Mombasa is also home to the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA), the organization who runs the weekly Kenya tea auctions, so after getting a full understanding of Kapchebet’s production process, Ryan and Nicole decided to venture away from the West Kenyan highlands of Kericho for four days to visit the hot, humid, and surprisingly Muslim island city.

Of course, getting around in Kenya is no small chore, despite the country being only twice the size of Nevada. The somewhat-built safari infrastructure doesn’t cater to our intended route well. We began our trip by taking a two-hour van ride to nearby Kisumu to catch our flight, but only after arriving at a deserted terminal first.

“I think that they have moved the airport,” remarked a factory employee that rode along.

Indeed, they had. We drove around to the other side of the airstrip to the new terminal, and two very short flights later, we’d flown from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean – coast to coast in Kenyan terms. We landed at dusk, and through the dark we saw the many offices of shipping companies from our taxi. Today, the Mombasa port is arguably the most important trade center in East Africa, serving neighboring countries Tanzania and land-locked Uganda.

We awoke to find a city very different from Kericho, not only in terms of population but also culture. It’s estimated that 70 percent of the population is Muslim - a far cry from the overwhelmingly Christian interior of the country -  but other religions (Hinduism, even Jainism) also feature prominently in architecture. Women in burqas dodge streets full of tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis), while the Old Town features ornate Arabic woodwork alongside the Portuguese-built Fort Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage site. And, of course, there are the white sands beaches north and south of the island.

Culture and sights aside, however, the main event of our trip was the tea auction. Even by Thunderbird standards, the room was incredibly international: At rows of desks sat buyers from nearly every continent. A broker sat at the front of the dome-ceiling room and rattled off different lots of various grades of tea from dozens of companies, 6 or 7 lots sold per minute, while buyers shouted out bids at a dizzying pace. In all, over 10 million kilos of tea from 11 countries were sold over the week’s two-day auction, one of the highest ever totals in history.

Spending time with brokers was perhaps the most eye-opening part of the trip. We had the chance to get opinions from brokers that had come from very different backgrounds, from Kericho-born tea industry lifers to Western-educated businesspeople. We learned of the many services that brokers provide to factories, and received a very thorough walk-through of the tasting process and how it relates to the prices at auction.

At the close of our trip, we were reluctant to leave the warm, tropical climate of Mombasa behind, but we were eager to tell the others what we’d learned. We said goodbye to our taxi driver, Sharif, at the airport drop-off, unpacked our sweatshirts, and started our journey back to highlands of tea country.