Helping smallholder tea farmers, Malawi

April 2013. The rainy season has just finished in Malawi and the country is looking surprisingly green and lush. For most tea farmers in this southern African country, the plucking season is now coming to an end and they will soon start pruning their plants so that they have a greater chance of surviving the warm, dry months ahead.

 

Looking green after the rains

We are told that the effects of climate change are acutely felt in this region, with farmers suffering huge plant losses during last year’s drought. Rainfall in Mulanje District, the main tea growing district of Malawi, has decreased from an average of 2,000 mm in 1960 to about 1,500 mm in 2012. During droughts weak and old plants are often killed off and they can also bring about physiological changes in plants that do survive, leading to reduced yields. Last year, Mulanje District also had to contend with major floods that wiped out some tea fields and damaged farmers’ houses.

Seedlings are a priorityI was here primarily to follow-up some in-depth needs assessment work with smallholders that forms part of ETP’s wider programme of work in Malawi. Not surprisingly, when you ask farmers about the ways in which we can help deal with their challenges they put new tea seedlings at the top of their list. The Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa (TRFCA) estimates that if gaps in smallholder plots were properly filled in, this could increase yields by up to 30%.

The cost of fertiliser is also a huge problem for the farmers we talked to. Factories offer loans to smallholders in order to buy fertiliser and other inputs, but farmers say they struggle to afford the amount they need for their full crop. We had lots of discussions about other ways to increase soil fertility such as through better composting and mulching. Whether the aim is to increase farmers’ resilience to the impacts of climate change, or to reduce their dependency on expensive fertiliser, training on good agricultural practices will help farmers a long way.

Mount Mulanje - most tea is from the Mulanje DistrictAnother key point of discussion was that many farmers do not have a clear view of their production costs, and how these compare to the payments they receive for their leaf, few keep records of the inputs they use. This lack of understanding of their actual returns reduces their ability to make good decisions about their farms and their ability to negotiate on the green leaf price.

Having heard directly from farmers and other stakeholders about the type of support they still need to produce more and better tea, leading to more sustainable incomes in the long-term, we will now be planning our activities with our members and partner for the next couple of years.

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