A More Sustainable Cuppa: Driving sustainability at Kenyan tea factories

Institute for Manufacturing
IfM Insights
Published in
8 min readJun 23, 2023


In 2020, IfM partnered with top Kenyan tea exporter Eastern Produce Kenya to promote simple — but effective — energy-saving practices at two tea estates located in the Nandi Hills.

After just 12 months of making sustainability relevant to their local workforce and by introducing straightforward energy-saving solutions, Eastern Produce Kenya has seen a reduction in energy consumption — proving that simple steps can add up to a big impact.

Image: Adobe stock

By Elizabeth Tofaris

Focus on the ‘good’ days

Kenya is one of the world’s biggest producers of tea. The sector employs over 600,000 smallholder farmers, supporting over three million people. Tea production is highly energy intensive. For example, to produce one kilogram of tea requires approximately 3‐6 kWh of thermal energy — supplied mainly from wood combustion — and 0.2‐0.5 kWh of electrical energy from the grid, renewable energy and diesel generators. To put that into context, running a dishwasher for one hour typically uses 1kWh.

In 2020, Eastern Produce Kenya (EPK), one of the country’s largest tea producers and exporters, invited IfM to apply the ‘Cambridge Sustainable Improvement Method’ (CSIM). help re-focus their efforts on reducing the amount of energy used at their Chemomi and Kepchomo tea factories.

Tea pickers in the Nandi Hills

Through online meetings and workshops over 12 months, the team worked with EPK to identify where energy could be saved and how to make sustainability relevant and understood by the factory workers.

Gary Punter, IfM Engage Industrial Associate, explains how the Cambridge Method (developed at the Institute for Manufacturing’s Centre for Industrial Sustainability) makes energy saving easy to understand and apply because it aligns sustainability with business success:

“The Cambridge Sustainable Improvement Method is eight simple steps that can be implemented over 12 months to deliver sustainability improvement with minimal investment. First, by looking at factory data, the method identifies the key drivers of the factory. We then help the factory pick the areas where sustainability aligns with business success.”

From field to factory: Tea leaves arrive at the Chemomi factory

Gary explains that the final part of the method is to get the teams focusing on the ‘good’ days and to discover opportunities to build and deliver action plans:

“We don’t focus on the problems,” says Gary, “but we ask: What happened on the good days? It’s always more motivational to ask them to focus on the ‘good days’ within their data and attempt to build on these good periods, rather than solving the bad days.”

Gary explains that when CSIM asked why energy consumption was higher on some days than others, the answer was that it was due to the wet weather when more thermal energy was required to remove surface moisture from the green leaf. However, when the data (on both good days and bad) was analysed and correlated with the weather, they found that the factories were actually having good days in wet weather and bad days in dry weather.

“So, we asked them to come up with the key reasons as to why they had good days,” says Gary, “And the top three reasons were things they could control. So, their usual mantra about ‘it’s all about the weather’ didn’t apply.”

Having established drivers for the good days, Gary and his team could build on simple changes and begin to bring staff along on the journey.

Simple steps = big impact

Some of the straightforward actions immediately impacted firewood and electricity improvements. “Because fuel wood stored in the open has a high moisture content”, Gary explains, “we suggested improving firewood storage by expanding covered wood storage areas. Steam usage was also reduced by eliminating steam leaks and cleaning dust from radiators and heat exchangers. We also helped develop an energy dashboard to delve further into withering and drying.

“To reduce electricity, we encouraged the simple actions of switching off lights and sockets and using natural lighting instead. At Chemomi, this has reduced consumption by 25%.

In addition, we suggested tea reworking should be minimised to avoid additional re-processing energy, which damages KPIs and use of clear roofing sheets to use solar thermal to reduce the moisture of green leaf in the withering troughs.”

After 12 months, teams reported a 15–30% reduction in thermal and electric energy consumption at both sites. There was also a significant increase in tea produced per unit of fuel wood (kWh/m3).

“Now, there is the controlled start-up of machines after a power outage,” says Chris Ballard, EPK’s Technical Director. “No machines are left idle or running when not in use. There is also proper work output by employees who now understand that their work has a direct impact on energy savings. The shop floor teams appreciate the load-shedding regime and no longer see it as a limiting factor in withering operations”.

“We have also adopted a new way of covering firewood in the yard resulting in high firewood utilisation efficiency compared to previous years. Data on electrical energy use is collected from each section of the factory. The data is compared between all factories, highlighting inefficient sections of a factory that must be improved”.

“These actions have led to significant energy savings at both sites, and there has been an overall improvement of factory performance across all areas,” says Chris.

How many cows have we saved?

Gary explains that one of the key success factors was getting the local team engaged in the changes and making the sustainability gains relevant to their context.

“We engaged the factory workers on their terms and in their language. We did this by converting energy into something recognisable, not gigajoules, but ‘how many cows can you buy with the savings?’ This gave us all a laugh but effectively equated to how much energy had been saved. It brought understanding to the room — that energy wasn’t something intangible. By the end of the project, they worked out that they had saved 2,000 cows — the size of the President’s herd!”

Energy saving notices at EPK

Gary recognises that local efforts were mirrored by a strong commitment from EPK HQ to try something new, as well as supportive managerial and technical leadership on the ground in Kenya:

“The open and positive culture of the Kenyan factory management and factory staff, coupled with our empathy and understanding of ‘real’ factory challenges and simple methodology, meant we could see impactful changes almost immediately.

“This wasn’t about us coming in and telling them what they need to do, then leaving. EPK had already been engaging in various energy-saving activities. This was about walking alongside them, listening to them, and getting them involved.

“For example, we encouraged the leadership team to establish their targets, to establish local Improvement teams to undertake surveys and implement their action plans and provide recognition for all the hard work involved.”

EPK sustainability meeting at Kepchomo

For Fred Oberi, a drier operator at Kepchomo Factory, the changes have resulted in professional growth: “I was motivated to get involved since I was made to realise that my role as a drier operator was critical in sustaining the company’s business as opposed to how I have been perceiving. In addition, the awareness of energy saving has improved my ability to avoid wastages of important resources at work and on a personal level.”

Chris Ballard echoes the crucial role IfM played in engaging the staff: “Everything was in place mechanically, but the next step was to get the people involved. Crucial to this was engaging the shop floor workers in the energy-saving plan. This worked because they are the ones who understand the operations of every machine since they are the users, and they understand the challenges and areas for improvement. They are the ones who know possible areas for improvement, and therefore, they had to own the process first.

“The shop floor teams took the project as their own and not a ‘Cambridge University’ project. Engaging the staff created ownership of the process and how the process directly impacted their personal lives,” says Chris.

“We’ve been working on factory efficiency for many years,” Chris continued. “So, it’s not just something that’s happened. IfM clarified precisely what we should be doing, focusing on, and getting the factory personnel involved.

“We knew where all the problems were, but it’s getting intentions turned into action, which is challenging, and that is where IfM helped.”

The future is bright

By engaging the local workforce, making sustainability relevant and identifying simple steps that significantly reduce energy consumption, the ‘Cambridge Method’ is now being used at five EPK sites in Nandi Hills.

Chris: “We have learnt that small actions lead to tangible and significant improvements and that energy saving can be achieved by involving all the personnel at the shop floor level.”

Gary: “Sustainability as a subject can feel large, not engaging and doesn’t often relate to individual day jobs. What we do with our methodology is engage the workers on their terms and in their language. We bring it to life.

“Companies that find they have a gap between sustainability ambition/strategy and gaining momentum/engagement with the factory shop floor would benefit from using the tool.”

Chris concludes:

“Since working with IfM, everything we implemented has been continued. Shop floor workers now own the energy-saving culture. Some team members have now moved to other factories and are implementing these ideas in these factories. So, the ideas and what we have learnt are spreading. We’re working together effectively and committed to bringing our customers tea that has a minimal impact on the environment.”

The Cambridge Sustainable Improvement Method

If you want to learn more about the Cambridge Sustainable Improvement Method (CSIM) and how it can deliver energy savings for your business, please visit: https://engage.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/cambridge-sustainable-improvement-method/ for more information.

About EPK

Eastern Produce Kenya Ltd (EPK) is one of the biggest multinational producers of tea in Kenya, with tea estates in the Nandi Hills area, west of the Great Rift Valley. Through investment in the land, factories and human resources, EPK produces some of the highest quality teas in Africa in a sustainable way with particular emphasis on modern agricultural practices, improving factory energy efficiency, increasing use of renewable energy and reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Eastern Produce Kenya Limited is part of the Camellia Plc group that has agricultural and horticultural operations in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, India and Bangladesh.