Between 2013 and 2015 the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) implemented a training programme with tea farmers in Malawi to improve their tea farming practices and ultimately their livelihoods. The programme was co-funded by Tata Global Beverages Ltd. (TGBL) and the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), and supported by Malawian tea producers and the Tea Association of Malawi (TAML).
Farmer Field Schools
In order to disseminate information effectively, Farmer Field Schools (FFSs) or schools without walls were used. The size of each FFS is typically 25-30 farmers, with training taking place twice a month for the duration of one year on a series of topics that the farmers choose themselves. Approximately 80% of the training focuses on tea farming. Topics include: Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), seedling production, climate change resilience, and business management. The remaining 20% of time is spent on ‘non-tea’ topics that are pertinent to their lives, such as HIV/AIDS, hygiene and sanitation, and food security.
Each school sets up trial and demonstration plots where farmers can experiment with different plucking and fertiliser application rates. This means they are able to witness first-hand how the different rates affect productivity and quality, which they can then replicate on their own plots.
The main objective was to build the capacity of tea farmers on GAP techniques, which would in turn result in productivity and quality improvements. This was expected to lead to higher incomes for tea farmers and their families.
A needs assessment also revealed the following:
- Many farmers had gaps in their plots – a production of affordable seedlings would allow gaps to be filled in, with a positive impact on productivity
- Farmers didn’t keep good records or have any business management skills, therefore they were less able to make good business decisions
- Famers told us about the high cost of chemical fertilisers and how insufficient use and incorrect application was holding back yields – training on organic fertilizer techniques (mulching and composting) was imperative
In order to ensure the environmental sustainability of small-scale tea growing in Malawi, we also included other topics to help farmers adapt to climate change impacts, such as rainwater harvesting and soil conservation. In addition, specific attention was given to gender issues and we aimed to include as many female farmers as possible in all training activities.
An independent third-party evaluation (Sept 2015) of the project concluded:
- Participation in the FFS had been positive for the farmers particularly in the core elements of the curriculum (plucking, pruning, and fertiliser application), i.e. the key techniques needed to grow a higher quantity of good quality tea
- Improved record-keeping among FFS farmers with many of them doing profit/loss calculations and budgets
- FFS farmers had applied more fertiliser (as the training had recommended) than non-FFS farmers, and a larger number of FFS participants had done so more frequently compared to those in the control group. Also, the depth of knowledge on fertiliser application had improved as a result of the FFS training
- In relation to the GAP techniques that are particularly relevant for mitigating drought risk, such as rainwater harvesting, mulching, and the planting of cover crops, FFS participants were implementing GAPs at a higher rate than non-participants
In the wider context of a general downturn in the tea crop for the whole of the Malawian tea industry, it was found (for those farmers that had complete datasets) that FFS farmers had improved their crop when compared to the previous year. The median increase was 16% over the high season.
Instead of funding large estate-managed nurseries (as other funders have been doing), the project established 13 small-scale nurseries, which produced 156,000 plants. The nurseries were managed directly by the farmers through the FFS. This meant that the farmers learnt the skills required for seedling production. The other benefit of local nurseries is that the young plants are closer to the fields where they will be planted, which reduces plant stress and losses during transportation. Farmers have told us they feel really empowered being able to grow their own tea seedlings and not having to rely on the estates anymore where production of seedlings was always too low to meet their needs.