I have just returned from an inspiring trip to Malawi where I was privileged to meet estate workers and the Ethical Tea Partnership’s Malawian team, and hear how Malawi Tea 2020, a ground-breaking industry-wide programme, is improving the lives of thousands of tea workers and farmers.
As is typical of this kind of visit, I have returned home with a head full of facts and figures – that the tea industry in Malawi is the second largest in Africa after Kenya; that tea is the largest formal sector employer in the country with approximately 50,000 workers on the estates and 17,000 smallholders; that tea is one of the main export crops and vital to the national economy; and that climate change is impacting the tea sector hard with devastating changes to rainfall patterns.
I have also returned with a vivid set of visual memories of the many people I have met. The beaming smile of tea plucker Efelo Kamembe as she holds the strong box of cash deposits made by her Village Savings and Loan group that will enable members to save for school fees, better housing, or investments in their land and new business ventures.
The shy laugh of impeccably turned out Diana Mromwa, a cashier at the Glenorchy Tea Estate who hopes to establish a side business selling clothes so she can finally complete the house she is building.
The considered air of Patrick Chipembere, a painter at the Glenorchy Estate, as he explains that he wants to prepare his children for any eventuality, even one without him, which means they must be educated so they can stand on their own two feet.
It is not unusual to come away from these kinds of trips feeling moved and inspired by the people you meet. It can also be hard to process the odds that they are working against – low wages, high school fees, poor diets, a changing climate, and so on – and difficult to see against such challenges much more than just incremental differences in people’s lives, despite everyone’s best efforts.
Yet I returned home with genuine hope for the people I met and the many others who are supported by the Ethical Tea Partnership in Malawi. More than hope, excitement even, at the possibility of how much their circumstances might change. Because hope is contagious and it is impossible not to be infected by the optimism of the Ethical Tea Partnership team in Malawi.
The Ethical Tea Partnership’s work in Malawi is concentrated on Malawi Tea 2020, a coalition of partners working to create a competitive tea industry so it can pay a living wage to tea workers and a living income to smallholder farmers. There is a wide range of expertise within the Ethical Tea Partnership and the wider Malawi Tea 2020 network to deliver this, including agriculturalists, economists, educators, strategists, and researchers. Their confidence in delivering improvements to the lives of those working within the tea sector is based on the tangible results they are already seeing.
Gracious Mnjengezulu runs the Farmer Field School programme, which aims to increase productivity and quality of the smallholders’ green leaf. Currently, a hectare of smallholder-farmed land will ultimately yield 1,000 kg of black tea per hectare, just half of the yield of an equivalent area on a tea estate. Farmer Field Schools are designed to help smallholders to close that gap.
This year, Gracious has 1,561 farmers enrolled in 50 Farmer Field Schools. The ‘classrooms’ are outdoors, literally in the fields that the farmers work. All areas of tea growing are covered from planting and plucking to seedling production, as well as crop diversification, climate resilience, business management, and nutrition.
Despite the challenges the tea sector is facing, Gracious is upbeat. “Now is a challenging time for the tea industry in Malawi, particularly in the face of climate change, but our research tells us that despite a general downturn in the tea crop, farmers who completed Farmer Field Schools saw an increase in yield from the previous year of 18.5%. This is good news for the tea farmer for whom a well-managed field can mean something as fundamental as being able to send their children to school.”
Jennifer Likupha is the newest recruit to the Ethical Tea Partnership in Malawi. She helps smallholder farmers establish tea nurseries with improved drought and pest resistant cultivars. With a background in plant breeding, teaching, and research, she has a passion for tea. When she heard that Ethical Tea Partnership was looking for a nursery advisor, she didn’t hesitate in applying. “I feel I am a perfect match because in all those areas I am an expert. It’s exciting! I’m very excited because you could never imagine you can find something that fits you so perfectly.”
Jennifer has high ambitions for the tea nursery programme, which helps smallholder farmers fill gaps in their fields, expand their plots, and increase their profit. “I would like to see that there is no distinction between a tea field that belongs to a smallholder farmer and a tea field that belongs to an estate. I want to see a field that is well-filled, well-managed, and that from far away, looks like a carpet. Then I can see the farmer progressing from Point A to Point B. To know that now the farmer is his or her own boss. That is what I am striving to achieve.”
Alongside improvements on quality and quantity of tea yield, Ethical Tea Partnership also runs a Village Savings and Loan programme to help farmers manage their day-to-day finances and make investments in their future. Led by Mavuto Banda, he explains that when income often doesn’t cover bare necessities, it is very difficult to save. The Village Savings and Loan programme encourages small but regular saving and also allows members to access loans that can be used to meet necessities such as school fees or to invest in a side business to boost income. Ultimately, the returns from the interest gained on the loans are divided between the members of the savings group.
The programme is in its second year and Mavuto has already seen encouraging results. “My most rewarding day so far was when I visited a group that was sharing out the dividends. Each share attracted an additional 114%. When I saw that, I thought, what kind of business can someone do and make 114% profit? I have never heard of that. When I see that, it makes me very happy. That’s my motivation. It’s immensely satisfying, I’m telling you.”
Mavuto is convinced that part of the success of Ethical Tea Partnership programmes is due to the culture within the team. “Ethical Tea Partnership treats its employees well. We have room for growth. We come up with our own ideas about how to run things and those ideas are taken on board. That way you feel treasured, you feel motivated to work hard and also to come up with new ideas that will benefit the organisation and also the people you serve. It is quite unusual. It’s amazing.”
Pulling all the threads together of Ethical Tea Partnership’s work in Malawi is Thwango Ndalama, Country Manager. Like her colleagues, she is aware of the many challenges facing the tea sector in Malawi but remains committed to the Malawi Tea 2020 programme and the impact it can have. It seems fitting to leave the last word on optimism with her.
“This work is making a tremendous difference to people’s lives. I have seen an improvement in the quality of leaf that smallholders produce, I have seen farmers improve their houses, able to pay school fees for their children, and to buy food for their households. There has been work on the estates around women’s empowerment with new policies on gender. All of this signals hope for the people working in the tea industry.”