Behind inauspicious glass doors on a Mombasa’s dusty Nyerere Avenue, gold letters on carved wooden boards list the former chairmen of the East African Tea Trade Association like deans of an Oxford college. Inside the brightly lit amphitheater, a buyer shouts, “Yes, sir!” from the third row of desks that bank around the auctioneer like a miniparliament. The 90 or so brokers dressed in compulsory collar and tie record the auction results with pen and paper; there are just two laptops in the room. This startlingly low-tech, open-cry tea auction is the biggest in the world by volume, trading $25 million every week. It has been saved from becoming obsolete by its members who rejected plans for online auctions in favor of a genteel tradition dating back to colonial times.
The Mombasa tea auction, on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, is held weekly on Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the year and is open to the public (details here). It is one of the few marketplaces left that trades tea the old way. India, the largest producer and home to six of the world’s 11 auction centers, introduced electronic systems in 2009. In early 2012, Kenya’s auction house announced that it too would go the electronic route, but in October, brokers and buyers rebelled, meeting in the historic auction room and voting, virtually unanimously, against digitization. “They rejected the mouse; they want the hammer,” shrugs marketing manager Brian Ngwiri, who was part of the team tasked with bringing the Mombasa auction into the online era.
“People prefer shouting,” says buyer Benjamin Gitonga, 40, as he takes a break from the auction room, where tea — brewed for exactly six minutes — is served every day at 10 a.m. prompt in white china cups and saucers. Gitonga says he wouldn’t have a job under the government-backed online auction system. Buyers would need to be technologically savvy to compete with others worldwide, and brokers could be cut out of the supply chain entirely. But it’s not just on economic grounds that Gitonga says they rejected the reform. Brokers and buyers take good old-fashioned pleasure in the job. “There are a lot of jokes. Otherwise we’d fall asleep,” he says. Managing director Peter Kimanga explains that quality control would also suffer under digital reform. “There’s always a challenge with quality evaluation if traders are buying over the phone.”
Downstairs in the bowels of the auction house, Zachariah Onditi slurps, swills and spits rows of amber liquids in his laboratory with the practiced methodology of a wine master. Onditi oversees the sampling of all leaves sold at auction. He explains that colonizers first planted tea in 1903 on a cloud-shrouded hillside above Nairobi. It is now a national institution, made milky and sweet. “Here in Kenya tea is a food,” Onditi says, before pointing out the different ways that tea is enjoyed across the world. In the Middle East, apparently, dark leaves are preferred, while the Irish favor leaf that makes a bright, brusque liquor. “Iranians like the big balls,” he adds, gesturing to a bowl of dark brown buds. Americans, meanwhile, like tea bags and instant tea. “They’re not discerning,” he says. And then a diplomatic flourish: “We make tea for the world. It’s very subjective, everyone has a very different taste.”