Controversy Surrounds Kenya Tea Development Agency Election of Embattled Figure

The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) has been embroiled in controversy since the June 29th election of John Chebochok as the Director of Tegat/Toror Tea Factory, which is managed by the KTDA.

Chebochok came under fire last year when a BBC documentary, Sex for Work: The True Cost of Our Tea, implicated him as being involved in sexual harassment practices against workers at a James Finlay Ltd. factory in Kenya through undercover footage and survivor testimonials. (Note: James Finlay Kenya was sold to Browns Investments PLC at the end 2023).

After the documentary aired, Chebochok was fired from his position at the James Finlay factory. However, he was not charged with any crimes because his alleged victims did not press charges or record statements.

In June, Chebochok was voted as the zone director for the Tegat/Toror tea factory in the Ainamoi zone in an election conducted on June 28 & 29 by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). According to The Kenya Times, Chebochok garnered 396 votes, followed by Stephen Tonui with 359 votes, and Simeon Serem, with 286 votes.

John Chebochok's placement on the ballot was called into question even before the election by groups such as the Federal of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kenya and The Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV).

The IEBC has defended the clearance of Chebochok as a candidate and his subsequential election, with CEO Hussein Marjan issuing a statement on the matter. "The Checklist provided that a valid certificate of good conduct issued by the National Police Service Department of Criminal Investigations would suffice as proof of good standing of a candidate. In the present case, Mr. John Chebochok presented a valid certificate of good conduct, and therefore, qualified as a person of good standing in terms of the provisions of the Articles of Association of Tegat/Toror Tea Factory Company."

Marjan continued by stating, "In conducting the election, the appointed Returning Officer remained impartial, neutral and transparent in keeping with the prescription of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the Manual for Election of Directors of June 2024, Articles of Association of Tegat/Toror Tea Factory Company, and the applicable legal instruments as decreed by the Court."

However, opponents are arguing that Chebochok does not meet Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya, which prevents persons with questionable characters from being elected to leadership positions.

KTDA sought to separate itself from the controversial election in a July 3 statement, saying, “As a legal entity, KTDA has no role in managing the election of smallholder tea factory directors except for the administrative purposes of availing farmers’ details and venues for voting." The statement continued to say, “The responsibility of conducting elections was bestowed upon the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The role played by IEBC included vetting the candidates, receipt of nomination papers, printing of ballots, voting, and tallying of results.”

There has been significant outcry from many other groups and companies to the election, with many calling for Chebochok to be removed.

The Law Society of Kenya released a statement on July 9 calling into question IEBC's vetting process and calling for the resignation of Chebochok. It stated in part, "The election of Mr. Chebochok undermines efforts to combat sexual and gender-based violence within the tea sector. It sends a troubling message that individuals with allegations of sexual misconduct can still attain positions of power, thereby potentially perpetuating a culture of impunity and fear among women workers."

In a hit to the pocketbook of the Tegat/Toror factory, both Finlays and Lipton Teas & Infusions announced that they would stop purchasing from the factory until the situation was resolved. Chief Supply Chain Officer of Lipton Tea Bruno Laine said in a statement, "LIPTON Teas and Infusions had been the largest buyer of tea from the Ainamoi zone. In light of these developments, we have immediately ceased purchasing from the Tegat/Toror factory, and we are urging our industry partners to do the same until appropriate measures are taken to address this serious issue."

Most recently, the board of the Tegat/Toror tea factory has asked Chebochok to resign in a statement from Japeth Chepkwony, the board chairman, "As a board, we are asking him to do the honourable thing and resign for the sake of the farmers who stand to lose business as a result of the storm that has erupted in the tea sector over the past week."

In addition, six human rights lobbies have moved to block the confirmation of Chebochok by going to court: Usikimye Community-based Organisation; Wangu Kanja Foundation (K)) Registered Trustees; Centre for Rights Education and Awarenes; Oxfam; The African Gender and Media Initiative Trust; and Registered Trustees and Flone Initiative.

At the moment, Chebochok's fate will be decided at a special general meeting on July 18 of the Tegat/Toror factory's shareholders, who will approve/reject the elected directors.

 

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