Celebrating Women that Grow Our Tea

It only seems apt that as I write this blog to celebrate International Tea Day I take a sip of my tea for inspiration. To be honest, it’s two days before the main event, but my cuppa is definitely helping to reinvigorate me and is great for the creative juices! Because ETP runs multiple projects and programmes on the ground to improve social and environmental issues linked with tea production, it’s easy to forget that behind all of this sits the humble cup of tea.

In Western society consumers are often far removed from food (and beverage) supply chains and many of us simply aren’t aware of the processes involved in making products. Having worked at ETP for a number of years I’d like to think I have a good idea of how my beverage of choice (during daylight hours) is made!

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at the impact of our work over the last three years. This has meant liaising closely with my colleagues in the London office and those that work in tea sourcing regions. It’s incredible how committed everyone at ETP is to improving tea sustainability, conditions on the ground for tea workers, farmers, communities, and the environment in which tea is produced.

The tea industry employs millions of people around the world, many of whom are women. A high percentage of smallholder farmers responsible for growing tea are women. For example, in Malawi where ETP is co-leading the tea industry’s first sector wide collaboration called the Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Programme women account for 75% of the 15,000 smallholder tea farmers across the country. This emphasises just how crucial women are to the tea industry, and to you and I when it comes to getting our daily cuppa. Because of that, I want to shine the spotlight on women in the world of tea and look at some of the ways they’re benefitting from ETP’s work…

And if that’s not reason enough, then goal five of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also covers gender equality and while I was conducting my review of our work, it really struck me just how much work ETP has already done to empower women.

female-truck-driverIn Kenya, we’ve been running social issues training at Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) factories for years. To date we’ve trained over 1,000 managers, supervisors, and members of staff out of workforce of 9,000. Incidentally, the training has also been run at 6 privately-owned factories reaching a further 240 people. The training is leading the way, changing social norms and mind sets, attitudes, and cultures in the workplace and surrounding communities. What stands out is that 50% of supervisors and 33% of managers are now women – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The factories are now also operating equal employment opportunities. This means that women are now taking on roles traditionally reserved for men, such as truck drivers.

Each one of KTDA’s 66 factories is governed by a Board. What I found astonishing is how much has changed: only four years ago there were a total of four women on these boards. Today, there are 54 women and this continues to increase. The trickle down effect it has for the female factory workers in terms of gender policy and practice has obvious positive ramifications.

I’d like to mention our partnership with UNICEF, which is helping protect children from violence, abuse, and exploitation. All across India, rural to urban migration is taking place on a mass scale. Many children and young people fall victim to trafficking and unsafe migration – a problem that affects those living on tea estates too. It’s also a sad reality that many girls living on tea estates don’t have access to secondary education and many of the opportunities that youngsters in the West take for granted.

To tackle this, ETP partnered up with UNICEF at the end of 2014. The resulting programme is working with 350 communities linked to more than 100 tea estates in Assam. Through peer support and access to education, we will reach more than 25,000 girls, helping protect them from exploitation as well as giving them better life opportunities.

Through the programme, we have established adolescent girls groups, giving girls the confidence and knowledge they need to stay safe from exploitation. By attending the groups, they have access to health talks and life skills classes that cover topics like hygiene, sanitation, nutrition, and cooking. Girls also take part in drama, sport, and other activities.

The final thing I’d like to touch upon is how we have been supporting smallholder farming communities by running farmer field schools (FFS) to improve their livelihoods. Each FFS group consists of 25-30 farmers, and training takes place twice a month for a whole year, on a series of topics that farmers choose themselves. 80% of the time is spent on good tea farming practices (pruning, plucking, and seedling production etc.) and the other 20% of the time is spent on non-tea topics that are pertinent to their lives, such as HIV/AIDS, hygiene and sanitation, and food security.


Many of the beneficiaries of these programmes in Africa and Asia are women. For example in Malawi, 65% of the 3,000 participating farmers are women. By my calculations that makes 1,950 women that will have a better and more sustainable future from tea. The good news is that these programmes are being scaled up all the time, which means that the tea sector will help reduce the divide between men and women working in tea, and increase the sector’s impact on achieving SDG 5.

As I finish my tea, I acknowledge that for now we’re on a journey to gender equity, but that said we’re already seeing tangible results: much has already been achieved in the sector that will leave a lasting legacy. And I’m really looking forward to the day ETP no longer needs to run programmes that address such issues!