Tea is one of Malawi’s major foreign exchange earners and the country’s second top most employer after the government, providing job opportunities to over 60, 000 Malawians.
The crop is more than a beverage in the country as 90% of the tea grown in Mulanje, Thyolo and Nkhatabay is exported outside, grossing over $14 million in annual foreign exchange earnings for Malawi.
But the sector has for a long time been dented by reports of child labour and sexual harassment in tea estates, especially those among smallholder farmers.
Things are however changing.
It has been years since 34 year old Delli Nessi of Mkuta Village in the area of Traditional Authority Mabuka in Mulanje started monitoring and addressing issues to do with child labour in tea estates in the district.
A smallholder farmer, Nessi has seen children being forced to work in tea estates before.
Through her personal experiences with the people who were involved in the malpractice, it was sheer ignorance that was fueling child labour among smallholder farmers.
“Since we started these engagements, teaching the farmers importance of eliminating child labour in tea estates, we have seen improvements and I can now challenge you that there are no children in our sheds and indeed in our estates,” Delli said.
According to Nessi, she, together with other smallholder farmers, conduct monitoring tours to ensure that no child is still working on any of the local tea industry value chain.
Fredrick Mkwapatira is chairperson for Sukambiri Association Trust, a cooperative of about 13, 000 smallholder tea farmers in Mulanje and Thyolo.
Like Nessi, the farmers under the cooperative are taking part in efforts to eliminate child labour among tea growers in Malawi.
Since 2008, the group has worked tirelessly to ensure that children remain in school.
In fact, the group has assisted surrounding communities with various projects such as school blocks and health facilities.
The school blocks are to ensure that no child is failing to go to school due to long distances.
Mkwapatira has said since 2008, the group has conducted civic education campaigns to eliminate child labour.
Patrols the group conducts in estates also ensures that those who are doing it in secret are caught and the children removed from the estates.
“This practice (child labour) is most of the times rampant during harvest time, so our patrols and monitoring tours have targeted such times and since we started, I can assure you that we have managed to eradicate the practice, Ofcourse there were some farmers who would continue involving children in secret, but we have reached out to them through civic education and peer chats,” Mkwapatira said.
Considering that most of the tea produced in the country is exported, there are certain conditions Malawi needs to meet if it is to continue selling its tea abroad.
One of such conditions is the elimination of child labour.
This will assure Malawi of a readily available market abroad.
In 2020, The Tea Association of Malawi (Tamal) entered into an agreement with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to accelerate actions for the elimination of child labour in the tea supply chain.
Through the interventions, the association has trained 432 compliance monitors who detect and address child labour issues in tea estates across the country.
The intervention has also allowed 46 labour inspections to be conducted to ensure that companies and tea estates are complying with regulations targeting the elimination of child labour in the sector.
Flemings Mwenibabu, who is Tamal Industrial Relations Secretary, has said the interventions are now bearing fruits.
“For once we have seen an increase in labour inspections within the sector so that companies comply as we (Tamal) together with the ministry of labour seek to ensure that the tea sector in Malawi is not dented by child labour issues, even mere reports,” Mwenibabu said.
On his part, the association’s Chief Executive Officer Tonda Chinangwa says most child labour related issues involving the sector are now more of ‘allegations than the real issues on the ground’.
“The sector has made tremendous progress in dealing with child labour and cases of sexual abuse, so most of the reports that are out there are mostly speculations and not the real situation on the ground,” Chinangwa said.
On a recent labour inspection tour to various tea estates across the country, Minister of Labour Vera Kamtukule reiterated the importance of the industry to national interests.
Kamtukule said it was in the government’s interest to ensure that all challenges being faced by the tea industry in Malawi are ironed out.
“There are a number of issues that have dented the image of the sector ranging from sexual abuse, child labour and Ofcourse issues to do with compensations, but the sector has done a lot in addressing these issues apart from providing job opportunities to many Malawians, these also must be highlighted,” Kamtukule said.
Kamtukule also lauded the sector for initiatives aimed at enhancing reporting mechanisms for reporting cases of abuse and child labour in the sector.
“I would like to recognise the interventions the sector is applying to deal with various challenges, I have noticed that there is a toll free line that anyone can use to report cases of abuse and child labour, this is something that as the government we pledge to support,” Kamtukule said.
The tea industry is the largest formal sector employer in Malawi, employing 60,000 workers and providing livelihoods to more than 14,000 smallholders.
Tea estate jobs are considered good jobs in Malawi, as they pay above the agricultural minimum wage of Malawi and providing a range of other benefits including housing.
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.