In Kenya, Sisters’ strategy turns Ernestea, the family tea estate into an export company

Ernestea has evolved into a multimillion-shilling high-value export business in recent years, adding to a trend in which most Kenyan enterprises begin to decline after the founder’s death.

The nine Lang’at sisters and their spouses have carved out a place for themselves in the US, United Arab Emirates, Europe and Canadian markets with their speciality tea.

What have they learnt about running a family business and what has worked for them?

According to Rosemary Rop Lang’at, the family business’s head Ernest Lang’at, their father and a former Ambassador, made sure they were involved in the business from an early age, working alongside their parents on vacations.

“One of the things that explain our success is that we have been part of this factory since it was established, we took part in its development,” said Ms Rop.

The sisters spent most of their youth overseas, since their father served as Kenya’s envoy in numerous countries, including the United States and Russia.

In 1961, their father purchased Kaptebeswet Farm in Kericho. He began with three acres and eventually added twelve more. Currently, the family owns more than 80 acres of tea land, which is harvested every two weeks.

“As the years progressed, we expanded the farm. We used to help him plant the tea during the school holidays,” explained Ms Rop.

However, the family patriarch did not want to launch a business. The current facilities were late in collecting the harvested green leaf, resulting in massive farmer losses because the product loses quality when it is not processed on time.

“Our parents decided to build a factory where they could manage the tea quality from the beginning to the end of the production chain. The goal was to eventually sell the tea under the name of our family-owned business,” informed Ms Rop.

Factory staff sorts tea leaves. Photo credit: Ondari Ogega

She adds: “Luckily, at the time, the tea board had liberalised the sector, allowing farm owners to process their tea in cottage factories. This was the golden opportunity that we had been waiting for to consolidate the vision and the investments made over the years into a bigger family-owned business.”

The Lang’at sisters formed a corporation and named their spouses as stockholders. They have concentrated on Orthodox and unique teas like as black, purple, and yellow teas.

Ms Rop claims that, although being totally owned, the company has a solid governance system in place to ensure that the company’s performance is not jeopardised.

“We have a very strong governance structure that enables everybody to use their talents and to contribute resources,” she says, adding, “We have a constitution, hold annual general meetings, have separated the board from the management and hired professional staff.”

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The firm also has two other outsiders on its board of directors, who play an important role in providing much-needed checks.

As they fight with the big boys in the market, the sisters have invested Sh100 million so far to build the plant.

Much of the investment has gone towards acquiring contemporary processing machines to fulfil the needs of the specialised market that demands high-quality tea in exchange for the higher price they pay for the beverage.

Ernestea sources green leaves from 300 tea producers to enhance what they already get from their property.

The obstacles they confront include a lack of quality green foliage and trustworthy markets, but they say they are conquering them.

They claim that maintaining a family-owned business might be difficult, but their success is founded on their ability to collaborate as a family.

“Everybody has a different personality, different expectations, different ways of working but what we’ve done is we have taken advantage of government instruments.”

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