FEATURE: Kenyan researchers to use Japanese tea to fight frost.
Kenyan scientists are using varieties of tea imported from Japan to breed a resistant strain to grow in the Kenyan highlands in order to fight frost.
They say they are now trying to develop the new variety and that the Japanese tea they intend to use in the cloning was planted two years ago and is thriving.
''In fact, we've had no deaths since we introduced the seeds here, from germination up to now, and this is an indication that even Japanese tea can be grown in Kenya,'' said George-Edward Mamati, an expert in plant breeding.
Most Kenyan tea thrives in areas from 1,500 to 2,600 meters above sea level.
Last year, Kenyan tea growers suffered a heavy loss of crop yield due to frost occasioned by low temperatures across the Kenyan highlands.
Nearly 90% of the cash crop was affected, dealing a major blow to the country's agro-based economy. It was the first time Kenya had seen a widespread frost effect and researchers are concerned about the effects of any recurrence.
But scientists say Kenya has very high altitude areas suitable for tea growing, if the right varieties -- especially cold-resistant clones -- can be developed.
They say that unlike Kenyan tea, Japanese tea can survive in very low temperatures and would be better suited for breeding a Kenyan resistant variety.
Apart from seeking a frost-resistant crop, the researchers say they are also planning to introduce green tea production into Africa.
Kenya only grows black tea, which is fermented during processing, as compared to green tea which only requires steaming of the leaves during processing.
This, biologists say, helps to preserve the catechins, chemicals present in the tea leaves which are believed to protect the human body against cancer.
Kenyan officials foresee a growing market for green tea abroad, saying Japan currently cannot satisfy its own domestic market in tea production due to industrialization and limited farmland.
Analysts say that major tea competitors like India and China have to supply their huge populations and may in the near future become world's major tea importers.
The species Yutakamidori and Yabukita, obtained from the National Research Institute of Vegetables, Ornamental Plants and Teas (NIVOT) in Japan, are being raised in a nursery in Kericho, Kenya's leading tea growing area which lies along the western highlands of the Great Rift Valley.
Researchers from the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya said they are working together with their Japanese counterparts to try and improve Kenyan tea.
''We are interested to see if we can use Japanese tea to improve our own tea,'' said Dr. Francis Wachira, a senior Kenyan scientist who in 1999 was based in Makurazaki in Japan's southern Kagoshima Prefecture, where he studied different tea varieties.
Makurazaki has one of the largest collections of tea varieties in Japan and provides a diverse environment for researchers from tea-growing countries.
Under the auspices of the Japanese government, Kenyan scientists have been visiting the gardens in Japan to acquire knowledge of how to use molecular technology in distinguishing tea varieties.
''We wanted to diversify our tea since it is not native to Kenya, and therefore we felt that Japan would provide us with the opportunity to do so as it has this unique collection,'' said Wachira.
Agriculturists say the colonial settlers who introduced tea to Kenya in the early 1920s did not record much information about the crop. The seeds were mainly from India.
Kenya is the world's third largest producer of tea after India and China, earning more than $500,000 a year in foreign exchange.