A Malawi Tea 2020 report suggests that 30 to 50 years from now, tea growing districts of Mulanje, Thyolo and Nkhata Bay will no longer be conducive for growing one of Malawi’s major forex earners due to climate change.
But smallholder farmers who solely depend on tea production in Traditional Authority Mabuka in Mulanje are having none of that.
Most, however, admit that production has been dwindling in recent years due to erratic rainfall in the area.
Tea production heavily relies on moisture brought about by rain. Mulanje and Thyolo have always be known for tea production as the terrain and vegetative cover in the two districts allowed for rains almost all year round, providing a conducive environment for tea production. But not anymore.
The trees are now gone, most of them anyway, and with them the rains. “This has resulted in a decline in production and the number of harvests per year, our earnings from the crop have also dramatically dwindled,” says Rhoda Mazuwa, a lead farmer from Naimbera Village.
Where Mazuwa and other farmers were earning about K60, 000 per harvest, she is now making at least MK30,000.
She now thinks an upward adjustment in tea prices estates offer to smallholder farmers could help cushion them from the losses they are now making as a result of a change in rainfall pattern.
“Most farmers here depend on tea production, if it’s not the actual farming, then it is piecework in tea estates but for us who grow the crop, we feel, apart from the erratic rainfall, tea estates are ripping u off through the low prices they have been buying tea from us,” Mazuwa says.
The estates in question are said to be offering an approximate of K120/kg to tea farmers, an amount Mazuwa says does not reflect the labour and other investments during production.
The smallholder farmers now say they want their crop to go at K250/kg. But they have doubts if this could be achieved any time sooner taking into account how powerless they seem in the eyes of these big tea estates.
Village Head Naimbere says, although farmers in the area toil all year long to grow the crop in the wake of climate change, when all is said and done, they do not have the power to set up prices for their own crop.
It is the companies and estates that buy the tea from the smallholder farmers who at the end of the day set up the prices for the crop.
“This is where we feel the problem is How is it that we cannot set up the prices for the crop we have toiled to grow? Why should the buyer set up the prices for us? “We would have loved if the government intervened and set up the prices or, indeed, empower us to be able to do that, otherwise the tea sector has always been a closed society with the government watching on the sidelines when it should have been the key prayer considering how important tea is to our livelihoods,” says Naimbere on the plight of tea farmers in his area.
The crop is more than a beverage to the country. Tea is Malawi’s second largest foreign exchange earner grossing over $14 million in 2017.
So various organisations have in recent times taken interest in the sector. In 2017, a study by a programme called Malawi Tea 2020 was conducted. Among others, the study wanted to establish how the local tea industry was responding to effects of climate change.
The study found that, in the next 30 to 50 years from then, Malawi’s popular tea-growing districts of Nkhata Bay, Mulanje and Thyolo would no longer be conducive for tea growing due to effects of climate change.
As a solution and indeed as one way of preparing farmers for such a time as that which is coming, Holland-based Rainfall Alliance funded a Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa)’s landscape management programme in the smallholder tea sector in Mulanje and Thyolo.
Among other things, the programme aims at enhancing resilience to climate change among smallholder farmers in the tea industry apart from providing them with altenative livelihoods in the wake of dwindling returns from tea farming.
At least 83 farmers have been reached with such programmes which encourage them to grow altenative crops and adopt new farming techniques.
“Our assessment before the programme started was that most of the smallholder farmers were complaining of low tea prices which were negatively impacting on their livelihoods because their land holding was small and they would use all that land for growing tea using proceeds from tea to purchase food and support other day-today activities which is now a challenge because profitable markets are not available now,” says Charles Kabambe, Project Officer responsible for Climate Change and Natural Resources Management at Cepa.
According to Kabambe, the other challenge is the absence of extension workers, specifically in smallholder tea-growing industry where most extension workers work for big estates which make it difficult for the farmers to favourably compete on the market in so far as quality is concerned.
“But now the farmers have been taught on how best to manage their land and reforestation in areas hit by wanton cutting down of trees.
“Apart from that, they are now able to grow altenative crops such as cassava, maize and pineapples using new farming techniques, which makes them food secure whenever tea prices fluctuate, they are also able to advocate their rights with policy holders such that they are able to obtain loans and other inputs for their farms,” Kabambe says.
In Malawi, tea is among the most neglected sectors in the local agricultural industry despite its enormous potential to national development.
Lack of well-organised profitable markets and limited regulation by the government has exposed smallholder farmers to various injustices.
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.