By Llywellenie Mpasa
Long appreciated but less cultivated, tea has never been spoken of in the same breath as tobacco.
Ironically, Malawi is the second largest producer of tea, after Kenya, in Africa, according to the Sustainable Trade Initiative (STI).
According to former Malawi Congress of Trade Unions president Kenwilliams Mhango, wages could be one of the reasons why not many people flock to tea estates to, say, work.
STI seems to back this line of thinking ‘Malawi Tea 2020: Revitalising Programme Towards Living Wage’.
“Across the globe, low wages paid to workers on tea estates incite tensions in terms of social and economic responsibilities in both tea production and procurement. Tea-buying companies have attempted to address social and environmental issues in their supply chain by requesting certification from their suppliers. Yet even with certification in place, tea pickers in several tea-growing regions cannot make a decent living at their current wage levels.
“Implementing living wages for tea workers in Malawi would imply a rise in cost of production — and likely a reduction of Malawian tea growers’ competitive advantage on the international market, where the country’s low production costs have secured buyers through attractive prices. Structural changes are therefore needed to enable workers to improve their livelihoods and lift themselves out of poverty,” it indicates.
In a bid to come to a logical conclusion of goings-on in the tea sector, the initiative embarked on research with a view to establishing a living wage benchmark as a target-setting and negotiation tool for workers, employers, and partners.
In so doing, they were following in the footsteps of Richard and Martha Anker who, in a 2014 report titled ‘Living Wages for Rural Malawi’, indicated that the living wage benchmark needed to be adjusted.
And, in the 2020 STI work, preliminary results of the living wage benchmark indicated that it was at K2,889 (USD PPP 15.04) for the benchmark and K1,574 (USD PPP 8.16) for current incomes.
“Overall, the Malawi Tea 2020 programme is an ambitious and unique program because it is supported by stakeholders all along the tea value chain. All participating producers are members of the Tea Association of Malawi (Taml). The main buyers of Malawi tea, including traders, packers, and retailers, are involved, and the main development organisations, certification schemes, civil society actors, and trade unions in the sector are engaged in the program. The Malawi Government also endorses the programme,” it says.
There are indications that tea issues are attracting the attention of those that have the potential to turn it into Malawi’s top foreign exchange earner.
More so because even President Lazarus Chakwera has indicated that there is a need to embrace crop diversification and think beyond tobacco, more so as the anti-smoking lobby which the World Health Organisation spearheads gains ground.
If there was a time the tea sector had to grab its chance, that time must be now.
Just on Monday this week, stakeholders conducted activities marking International Tea Day, with Taml indicating that the tea sector can play an important role in improving lives and restoring livelihoods of people who have been impacted by successive economic shocks caused by financial and natural downturns.
The association emphasised the need to identify economic, social and environmental sustainability interventions that may improve fortunes of the tea sector in the country.
Speaking on the sidelines of this year’s commemorations Mulanje, the association’s chief executive officer, Tonda Chinangwa, said the sector represents a major source of employment and income to millions of marginalised families and, yet, it faces a number of challenges.
“Tea production amounts to over K51 billion annually, accounting for an important source of export earnings, and generates productive jobs and empowers individuals, especially women and their communities,” he said.
National Smallholder Tea Growers Association Chairperson, Princewell Pendame, said tea cultivation is attractive to smallholders because it creates jobs and requires relatively little investment.
He, however, admitted that the sector is not free from challenges.
The official sais challenges impacting smallholders include low farm gate prices, poor extension services, limited market channels and poor access to credit and technology.
“There is a pressing need to strengthen smallholders’ business ecosystems. If not well protected and supported, tea smallholder growers can suffer the most,” he advised, before adding: We need to do things differently, embrace new and innovative approaches and move to action.”
Trade and Industry Minister Mark Katsonga Phiri said his ministry will involve all stakeholders in the tea sector to mitigate challenges being faced by smallholder tea planters.
The minister stressed that, if small-scale tea farm operations are to remain viable in an increasingly competitive market environment, stakeholders have to constantly innovate.
“We are exploring options, including raising the value of tea products through standards, specialty teas, product innovation and generic promotion. The tea sector must demonstrate its value in order to command higher prices,” Katsonga Phiri said.
Tea is the second most used drink after water, which serves as testimony of the importance and worth of tea in the world.
International Tea Day is observed on May 21 and is premised on creating awareness about safe working conditions for tea workers, fair trade and a sustainable environment to improve the production of tea.