Tea industry partners helping Kenyan farmers improve yields by 36%

A “pioneering” training program designed to help smallholder tea farmers modernise production and improve their livelihoods is being rolled out to major African and Asian tea-growing countries.

The Sustainable Trade Initiative, has already helped 48,000 farmers in Kenya increase their yields by a third.

The training approach, developed and implemented by the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and IDH – the Sustainable Trade Initiative, has already helped 48,000 farmers in Kenya increase their yields by a third and find ways to generate more income from other sources.

It has been piloted by the Kenya Tea Development Agency which has set up more than 1,600 Farmer Field Schools to deliver the program.

ETP and IDH now aim to reach 200,000 more smallholders with the program within the next three years, extending it in Kenya and rolling it out to Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, India and Vietnam.

The two organizations will work in partnership with some of the big tea brands, including Tata Global Beverages (which owns Tetley), Taylors of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea), and Unilever (PG Tips).

The project is just one of numerous strategic initiatives being led by ETP and IDH which aim to tackle the big challenges 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. The two will set up long-term programs to try to build “powerful partnerships” between the tea industry, retailers, governments and NGOs that will tackle these complex problems.

“Tea is the world’s favourite beverage, after water, and it provides a livelihood for millions of people around the globe,” said Sarah Roberts, executive director of the ETP. “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.”

It is estimated that 8 million smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia are responsible for around 70% of global tea production.

Joost Oorthuizen, chief executive of IDH, added: “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 program was later combined with Rainforest Alliance certification.

The program takes a unique approach designed to train large numbers of farmers at relatively low-cost. Groups of farmers are trained in ‘schools without walls’ during a 12-month period, trialling 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, and they can also choose modules such as using kitchen gardens and livestock farming to diversify their income.

Almost 48,000 farmers have already been through the program and, according to KTDA data, they are achieving yields 36% higher than those who have not, and are also generating more income from other sources.