Fairtrade Fortnight: the power of a good cup of tea

I couldn’t be more grateful for the warm cup of tea the stewardess brings round as I sit writing this in socks and flip flops on a cold plane sitting on the tarmac at Amsterdam that may or not take off because of fog – 24 hours into the journey to get back to London from Malawi.

But, just having spent days talking with tea and sugar farmers about the two years of drought followed by a year of flooding that’s almost halved the incomes they could barely afford to live on in the first place, I can hardly complain about my situation or the weather.

“What this trip has really proved to me is how good and strong and generous most people are,” says cook and food writer Rosie Birkett as we reflect back. And she’s right.

Far right: Esme Kamwendo, 70, “retired” as a teacher and now works as tea farmer at Sukambize, where 70 per cent of the farmers are female. She cooks us an incredible feast of nzima (like polenta, made from maize) chicken (killed especially for us) fish and pumpkin leaves, with tea (with lime juice) and avocados and a pineapple that was bought from a market because the ones she grew were stolen.

I came to Malawi to visit Fairtrade farmers after having watched a Channel 4 documentary last year that questioned Cadbury’s use of the Fairtrade label. I was keen to find out for myself how much of a difference buying Fairtrade makes to farmers.

I now know it may not be a perfect system, but it can be the difference between life and death for expectant mothers and their babies; between families eating or starving, having access to fresh water and children being able to attend school – which is essential for future progression

About 75 per cent of Malawians live below the international poverty line. When it comes to agriculture, such as tea and sugar farming, this is because they are not paid enough for what they are producing. It’s similar to the UK’s recent farmers milk crisis – when supermarkets drove down the price of milk so much farmers were making a loss on producing it – but on a much bigger scale.

Tea farmers at Satemwa: farmers are trained to pluck soft leaves from stems with two or three flowers and a bud, because of this fairtrade tea is of a superior quality. Hard leaf produces fibre which is extracted at processing and reduces the price when sold to market.

Tea is generally sold at auction, so price depends on demand, but the farmers we meet tell us it works out to be the equivalent of 70p per kilo. It takes a couple of hours to pluck a kilo of good-quality tea leaves – and that’s before it’s been withered and processed for sale.

However, the Fairtrade auctions, which operate separately, set a minimum sale price of £1.11 per kilo, more than 30 per cent higher. A 40p premium is also paid per kilo, which goes into a separate account run by an association of farmers and must be used to fund projects that help develop the community.

When sales are good this helps to build hospitals and fund adult and children’s education, as well as pay for essentials such as mosquito nets and anti-malarial drugs.

However, as tea becomes less popular with our coffee-shop generation sales are in decline, which means farmers are competing for a smaller Fairtrade market and forced to sell for reduced prices at non-Fairtrade auctions.

Customer outrage put pressure on supermarkets to raise the price they paid for milk to improve dairy farmers’ lives. If we all bought Fairtrade tea it would force suppliers to meet demand.

Now, how’s that for the power of a cup of tea?

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