From Workers to Tea Farmers

In the rolling hills of Dickoya and Maskeliya in up country Sri Lanka, spreads out a lush green shrub traversing the terrain. There are both tall and short trees providing shade to the tea bushes. Although these bushes were planted in the 1880s, they’re still yielding green leaf ready for processing in the factory to make tea, which will be drunk all around the world.

I’m in Sri Lanka as part of an ETP, Taylors of Harrogate, Mother Parkers, and International Trade Centre (ITC) project that will deliver training on an extension methodology not used before in Sri Lanka. Farmer Field Schools (FFSs), which started in Indonesia and are extensively used in Africa, provide hands-on training to small groups of farmers to help them increase yields, produce better quality tea, diversify incomes from other crops, and manage the land responsibly.

Not only is this model new to Sri Lanka but so too are the farmers. Let me explain…

Work plan demoRecently, under the guidance of the Planters Association of Ceylon the industry has made hard decisions – decisions that will see the industry make a paradigm shift from the way business has been conducted over the last century. The tea estates have agreed to cede part of their estate and hand over plots of land to the tea workers, who in three years’ time will take their destiny into their own hands – growing, managing, and supplying green leaf to the associated factories thus making a living from their own work. It’s worth pointing out that the British planters brought these workers here from South India at the formative years of the tea industry in Sri Lanka. Therefore, although they are Sri Lankan citizens now, they have no ancestral land, which means they are strongly attached to the tea estates (and its facilities) where they live and work. In order to help with the transition these newly appointed landowners will require a lot of training and support to ensure they can make a success of tea farming and earn a decent living.

This is the reason why my colleague Francis Namara and I are here. Francis has extensive knowledge of the FFS methodology from working with farmers in Uganda. Together we’re training a team of Sri Lankan trainers on the FFS methodology, who will then work with this new generation of farmers over the next 3 years and beyond.

Keeping us awake 2

An African dance/jig after lunch energises the Sri Lankan participants

The opening ceremony was presided over by the Chairman of the Planters Association of Ceylon all the way from Colombo signifying the importance of the course. The planters came in their numbers representing 10 selected estates along with planters from other estates eager to learn and implement the methodology. The course took four days and covered a range of topics, from introduction, group formation (normally 30 farmers per group), leadership, how to devise course content, and appropriate delivery methods. Encouragingly, senior managers sat through all the days of the course along with their junior counterparts showing how seriously the Sri Lankan industry is taking it.

The Sri Lankan tea industry in the up country (high elevation) has a different set up from the low elevation tea estates. While smallholders or outgrowers substantially supply the low elevation country, there are no smallholders in the high elevation tea growing areas where this training took place. This could potentially pose a challenge to the implementation of the methodology. That said, the determination of the Ceylon planters could not be withered down.

While the name may be different in up country Sri Lanka the delivery methodology will remain the same. We look upon the estate management in Sri Lanka to make this methodology a success – I for one am sure they will!