What’s for breakfast?
Abraham Natukunda was born into tea.
In the Western Region of Uganda, where he was born, tea is grown largely by smallholder farmers who grow and harvest the crops. After school, he would join his parents in harvesting tea which they would take afterwards to a production centre not far from home.
Farmers and producers — whether smallholders or commercial — in this region rely on the sale of their tea grains for their income.
‘Harvesting tea depends on the season, when rains are frequent we (are able to) do so biweekly’
The East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda export about 20% of the world tea, with Kenya in the clear lead; the country alone netted $1.5 billion in 2017 from selling tea leaves. Before they can be exported, the leaves are taken through different stages of the production process.
At the production centres, the leaves are first sorted to determine the useful leaves, then withered — either naturally with air or chemically with steam — to reduce their moisture content. After this, the leaves are cut in way that ensures the enzymes stay alive and then cured (dried) with machines. Only then is fermentation done, when the enzyme reaction is controlled. This is when the tea leaves change colour from green to the colour that is determined by the type of tea the producer wants.
Fermentation is the toughest part of production. As it depends on an enzyme reaction, which affects the resulting aroma, colour and taste of the tea, it requires a lot of experience to do right usually by producers who have worked at the plants for over 30 years.
‘Copper Brown is the colour that produces (the popular) Black tea’
On leaving the production centre, the tea is transported to the ports (from this region, Mombasa houses the popular port) where they are sold at auction. To enter for this auction, experts grade the tea according to their perceived quality. If the tea is Grade 1, bidding begins at the highest price. Grade 3 is not so lucky, some of these are sold for no profit.
‘I see no reason why the price should keep fluctuating, depending on how your grains are graded; that’s why I developed my technology’
Abraham developed a sensor, called eNose, that monitors the humidity and carbon dioxide levels during the fermentation process. In addition, it includes a colour recognition system that is able to identify the hue of the tea grains. The technology is guided by the enzyme reaction to map all the reacting chemical compounds and determine what level each element should be to stop the process. As developed, if the level of Caffeine had reached say , 25% (and this was the optimum level), the sensor will keep the humidity and carbon dioxide stable until the end of the fermentation process.
eNose was first developed while Abraham was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Kigali, Rwanda. To prototype his technology, he first deployed the sensor with Rwanda Mountain Tea, a leading indigenous tea producer. Since then, he has installed his sensors in 20 other production factories and is trying to test the scalability of the technology. His company, Inter Connect Point, is assisted by Inmarsat — the British telecoms company — who provide the LoRaWAN platform he uses.
‘In five years, I want to have a research lab and be working on IOT and data analytics products’
Abraham has big ambitions for his technology, but the biggest impact he wants to have is on the lives of smallholder tea farmers and producers. By offering a base line for their production quality, their earnings will be more stable and give them the option of growing their output to increase patronage. For him, there is no reason why a tea farmer in the Virunga Mountains — on the border between Rwanda and Uganda, which produces some of the world’s finest tea — shouldn’t earn enough to afford an English breakfast.