The Blog

We're Raising Living Standards for the People Who Grow Your Tea

Tea is enjoyed the world over - it's the most popular drink after water - but as we sip our cuppa how many of us pause to think about the life of those who produce it?

Tea is enjoyed the world over - it's the most popular drink after water - but as we sip our cuppa how many of us pause to think about the life of those who produce it?

Tea is produced in some of the poorest countries in the world, and most of it - more than 70% - is grown by eight million smallholder farmers. Across Africa and Asia they face common problems, old ones such as the best way to farm to make a decent living, and new ones like how to deal with the unpredictable impacts of climate change.

This week tea producers, brands and retailers from across the world met in London at the annual TEAM-Up event, hosted by the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and IDH - the Sustainable Trade Initiative, to discuss what we can do to ensure that all those involved in producing tea can live well, now and in the future.

One common problem is that many smallholder farmers use outdated production methods, which results in poor returns. A unique training programme developed in Kenya, the world's third largest tea producer, has had remarkable success at tackling this issue, and is about to be rolled out to other tea growing countries in Africa and Asia. Pioneered by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) it has already helped 48,000 smallholder farmers modernise their production, increase average yields by a third and diversify their income.

The unique year-long programme allows farmers to design their own training by choosing modules which focus on their particular needs. Groups of about 30 farmers meet twice a month in "schools without walls", trialling different farming approaches and learning from experiments in their own fields and from each other. Three quarters of the curriculum focuses on tea farming, but they can also choose modules such as livestock farming or developing kitchen gardens in order to diversify their income. They share their experience with their neighbours so that improved practices are spread around the area.

The programme is designed to train large numbers of farmers at relatively low cost. It was launched in 2008 by the KTDA, Kenya's largest smallholder cooperative which has now set up over 1600 Farmer Field School to deliver the programme. In time KTDA hopes all 560,000 of its smallholders will be trained.

ETP and IDH now plan to reach 200,000 more smallholders with the programme in the next three years, extending it to non-KTDA smallholders in Kenya and rolling it out to Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, India and Vietnam, with the support of tea brands like Tata Global Beverages (who make Tetley) and Taylors of Harrogate (makers of Yorkshire Tea)

Climate change is another major issue for people who depend on tea for a living. Rising temperatures, variable rainfall, drought and increased incidence of pests and disease all pose high risks. Smallholders are particularly vulnerable because they have less money to spend on adaptation measures.

A separate project, run by ETP and GIZ, the German Development Agency, has already taught 100,000 KTDA smallholder farmers about how to adapt their farming practices to become more resilient to climate change and we're now adapting it for use in Malawi and Uganda.

Crucially, the farmers were given access to affordable finance so they could invest in improvements. Since the launch of the project in 2010 more than 3.5 million trees have been planted on farms or are growing in nurseries to provide shade for tea bushes, help fix soil nitrogen and provide fodder for livestock. More than 600,000 drought and frost resistant tea clones have been planted or are being grown in nurseries. More than 2500 farmers have installed rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation systems.

Initiatives like these are generating real innovation and excitement and attracting young people back into tea, which helps improve the stability of tea-growing communities. At TEAM-Up we heard first hand from people whose lives had been changed. One farmer told us how training in rainwater harvesting and irrigation has allowed her to grow vegetables seriously and make money selling them at market. Another has started to make her own compost manure, cutting the costs of production and increasing her yield.

The future success of our industry depends on how well we look after the people who produce tea, and ETP and IDH are committed to leading strategic projects to tackle the social and environmental issues we face. We're putting together powerful partnerships of tea brands, retailers, government agencies and NGOs - TEAMing Up - to find solutions to these complex problems. If we can offer smallholders and tea pluckers a decent living, they will continue to supply the demands of billions of tea-drinkers worldwide.