Farmer field schools assist farmers modernize tea production

A school without wall programme is training tea farmers how to cushion themselves from weather changes while modernize and diversifying tea production at a time when a glut in the international market coupled with adverse weather is having a toll on earnings.

Those trained are already recording 36 percent higher yields than those who have not, and are also generating more income from other sources.  Already 48,000 farmers in Kenya have benefitted from the programme which has set up over 1600 Farmer Field Schools across the country.

The programme, a partnership between the Ethical Tea Partnership and IDH – the Sustainable Trade Initiative is also targeting other countries in Africa and Asia. The programme takes a unique approach designed to train large numbers of farmers at relatively low-cost.

Groups of farmers are trained in “schools without walls” over 12 months, trialing different farming approaches and learning from experiments in their own fields and from each other. They are consulted about key issues affecting both their tea crop and their farm, so the training can be designed around their needs.

Three quarters of the curriculum is focused on tea farming, they can also choose modules such as using kitchen gardens and livestock farming to diversify their income. At the end of the training they share their experience with their neighbours so that improved practices are spread across the locality.

ETP and IDH now aim to reach 200,000 more smallholders with the programme within three years, extending it in Kenya and rolling it out to Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, India and Vietnam in partnership with major tea brands Tata Global Beverages (who produce Tetley), Taylors of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea), and Unilever (PG Tips) and other partners including the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), Rainforest Alliance, the Wood Family Trust and Gatsby Charitable foundation.

This is one of a number of strategic initiatives led by ETP and IDH which aim to tackle key issues facing the tea industry such as improving livelihoods for farmers and workers, managing environmental problems like climate change, and building resilient and stable supply chains.

They are setting up innovative, long-term programmes and building powerful partnerships between the tea industry, retailers, governments and NGOs to find solutions to these complex problems. Sarah Roberts, Executive Director of the ETP, said: “Tea is the world’s favourite beverage, after water, and it provides a livelihood for millions of people around the globe.

“These projects show that the industry is committed to helping smallholder farmers and workers earn a decent wage and farm better, and that it understands that this is fundamental to building secure supply chains and future success.”

The tea industry’s annual Team Up conference identified key social and environmental issues affecting the sector and explored how action to tackle them can secure supply chains and build brands’ reputation. ETP and IDH, joint hosts of the event, updated producers, packers and retailers on the progress of their pioneering projects.

Joost Oorthuizen, Chief Executive of IDH, said: “It is amazing to see how the tea industry is making serious efforts and investments to address difficult issues such as wages and smallholder inclusion. “These and other deeply rooted problems, that only a few years ago were ‘owned’ by civil society groups, are now high on the agenda of the international tea industry. We can use this positive energy by working together, and collaborating with retailers, government agencies and NGOs, who all have a part to play.”

It is estimated that 8 million smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia are responsible for around 70% of global tea production. However, many use outdated production methods, often in poor working conditions, which result in poor returns.

Kenya is the world’s third largest tea producer and over 60% is produced by smallholders. Its largest smallholder cooperative, the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), with support from IDH and Unilever, introduced Farmer Field Schools in 2008 to improve the livelihoods and working conditions of its 560,000 smallholder tea farmers and their workers, and the programme was later combined with Rainforest Alliance certification.

ETP, IDH, Oxfam and the German Development Agency GIZ have also assembled a coalition to tackle the issue of low pay on tea estates, and plan action to move workers towards a living wage which will cover a basic nutritious diet, decent housing and other needs.

Many tea producing countries are poor and minimum wages may be set at a low level, so although tea estates pay their workers the legally agreed wage this may not be enough to give them a living wage that covers a household’s basic needs.

Work is focussing initially on Malawi, Africa’s second biggest tea producer, where pickers earn two thirds of the World Bank poverty line income of around $2 per person per day, but are still better off than 62% of the population, who exist on less than the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $1.25 a day.

The coalition aims to help tea estates improve their productivity and profits and make more finance available to invest in improvements in return for a commitment to raise wages. They will also work with employers, unions and governments to agree phased improvements to wages – which are set at national or regional level – and increase worker representation in negotiations. The programme will run for several years and inform similar work to raise wages in other countries.

Another project run by the ETP and GIZ, has helped more than 100,000 smallholder farmers to increase their resilience to climate change and secure their future livelihoods in Kenya.

Farmers were taught about the impacts of climate change and how to adapt to them, trained in good practice, low-cost farming techniques, and given access to affordable finance to help them make improvements.

More than 3.5 million trees have been planted on farms or are growing in nurseries to provide shade for tea bushes and help fix soil nitrogen. More than 600,000 drought and frost resistant tea clones have been planted or are being grown in nurseries to improve smallholders’ resistance to extreme weather. More than 2,500 farmers have installed rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation systems.

The training will now be extended to all 560,000 farmers working for the Kenya Tea Development Agency, the country’s largest smallholder cooperative, and it is being adapted for use in Malawi and Uganda.