International Tea Day

Jamiron, who took part in Traidcraft Exchange’s EqualiTea project in Bangladesh, working in a tea garden. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/GMB Akash

Jamiron, who took part in Traidcraft Exchange’s EqualiTea project in Bangladesh, working in a tea garden. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/GMB Akash

December 15th is International Tea Day. In this blog, George Williams gives us an insight into how Traidcraft Exchange has been working to improve the lives of millions of producers and workers in the tea value chain since 2004.

International Tea Day, first established in 2005, is dedicated to raising awareness of the tea trade and the millions of producers and workers involved in it globally. Traidcraft Exchange has been working in the tea sector since 2004 and we’ve recently commissioned an independent review of our work across East Africa and South Asia. We’re aiming to publish the report in the new year, but in the meantime, we thought we’d give you a few of the highlights in celebration of International Tea Day.

Around the world, tea is grown either on large estates, as featured in our ‘Who Picked My Tea’ campaign, or by smallholder tea growers. Whilst our advocacy and policy work has focused on the situation for workers on estates, Traidcraft Exchange’s programme work has focused its energies on smallholders.

The Ethical Tea Partnership estimates that about 70% of global tea production is produced by 8 million smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia[1]. Our work has sought to empower smallholder farmers through a variety of methods, including collective working, improved representation, better agricultural practices and improved dialogue and coordination within the sector.

As in all our work with smallholder producers, harnessing collective power is the foundation of our work with smallholder tea growers. Working in this way enables smallholders to strengthen their voice, achieve economies of scale, improve negotiating power, and increase market competitiveness. That’s why Traidcraft Exchange and its partner Centre for Education and Communication have supported over 66,000 smallholder tea growers in India to organise into village-level ‘primary producer societies’ across southern and north-eastern states.

As mentioned, this brings significant benefits to the organised producers – but it can also have wider impacts for unorganised producers as well. An independent evaluation of the latest phase of our work in India found that the scale of the programme had contributed to a shift in the balance of power towards producers and away from the middlemen who previously squeezed them down on price. Unorganised producers were able to demand higher prices when selling to the traders – ‘leaf agents’ in tea sector parlance.

At the same time as harnessing collective power, Traidcraft Exchange has worked to increase the representation of small tea growers through the formation and institutional strengthening of regional associations and national federations, building their capacity to lobby for policies and practices that support the small tea grower sector. One such example is in India, where Traidcraft Exchange’s programme supported the formation and organisational development of the Confederation of Indian Small-Tea Growers Association (CISTA), which now has a prominent place within national policy-making arenas and works closely with the Indian Tea Board. Over in the extreme north of Bangladesh, where the smallholder tea farming sector is in a nascent stage of development, Traidcraft Exchange has been working with over 5,000 small tea growers, supporting the formation of village-level groups, sub-district and a district association. The district association now sits on the national price monitoring committee of the Bangladesh Tea Board – representing the interests of small tea growers on this critical issue. 

Within each context where we work, the collective structure provided an effective and efficient means through which technical training is delivered to large numbers of small tea growers focusing on sustainable tea cultivation and improved agricultural practice.  These practices improve both yields and quality, both of which are critical to ensuring competitiveness with tea leaf quality being particularly important to maintaining price.

Across all our programmes, Traidcraft Exchange’s teams in-country have sought to bring together key tea stakeholders and to facilitate dialogue around the same table, sharing perspectives on critical issues relating to the sector. In Kenya, for example, we worked with factory managers and small tea growers to help them understand their respective rights, responsibilities and obligations as per the revised Kenyan Tea Act of 2008. Working closely with four tea factories in central Kenya, Traidcraft Exchange and its partners helped to build the leadership and management skills of 140 small tea grower Collection Centre committees – these committees form the hub around which local smallholder tea growers are organised.

Through the Collection Centres, over 26,000 small tea growers were trained on their rights and responsibilities, and, via Farmer Field Schools, on tea cultivation and harvesting techniques.  The independent final evaluation of the work found that after four years, 90% of participating small tea growers could articulate their rights and responsibilities.  The evaluation also found that the Collection Centre committees were more professional and business-like and were engaging more effectively with tea factories, raising significant issues on behalf of their members. Overall, a more positive relationship was cultivated between the factories and their suppliers, the small tea growers: smallholders were reported to be more confident, factories more responsive, and overall engagement less acrimonious.

Traidcraft Exchange’s journey in tea has not been all plain sailing. We’ve learnt from the mistakes we’ve made along the way and we haven’t yet achieved all that we want to. The challenges and obstacles we’ve encountered are all explored in the report which we’ll publish next year, but for International Tea Day we wanted to give a flavour of what’s been achieved to date and the difference it makes for the small tea growers in South Asia and East Africa that we depend on every time we make a brew.

George Williams is Traidcraft Exchange’s Impact and Learning Manager.

We would like to say a huge thank you to DFID, the European Commission, and Christian Aid as well as the generous trusts, foundations and individuals who have supported our tea programme work since 2004.

[1]  Go to: Ethical Tea Partnership

Nancy Demuth