Where the Tea Trail leads

15 Jan 2014 9:56

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Jane Snell, Product Manager for tea at the Fairtrade Foundation, reflects on Simon Reeve’s BBC2 documentary  on ‘The Tea Trail’ this week and what it means for Fairtrade, the different players in the tea industry and tea drinkers.




BBC2’s ‘The Tea Trail’, featuring adventurer and journalist Simon Reeve, on Sunday night headed to Kenya and then on to the undulating hills of Mabale, Uganda, to uncover some of the people and their stories behind the nation’s best loved cuppa.

Tea is the most popular drink in the world after water, with 70,000 cups drunk per second and is an industry which involves 50 million people globally in many of the world’s least developed countries.

Selling tea should be helping the people who grow it to improve their lives but, as Simon Reeve learned during his journey, the industry that supplies our favourite drink is affected by endemic poverty, low wages and increasingly climate change.

Part of the problem is that we are not paying enough for our tea bags.  Visit your local supermarket and you might initially be delighted to buy a heavily discounted bargain-priced box of tea bags. However, there is a human cost behind this low price and the reality is that low retail prices do not leave sufficient value in the supply chain for everyone to have their fair share. This means that producers and workers remain in poverty.

We believe that more of the industry should be striving to buy tea under Fairtrade terms. All own-label tea in Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer is Fairtrade certified.  In addition,  leading Fairtrade brands Clipper, Cafedirect and Traidcraft also sell tea with the Fairtrade label. However Fairtrade tea represents less than 10% of the UK market.  

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Fairtrade empowers workers by ensuring workers’ rights improvements, including permanent contracts, regulated working hours and overtime, maternity, holiday and sick pay. Small farmers are also able to gain access to markets and accumulate capital for reinvestment.  

However, the key benefit is the Fairtrade Premium. In 2012 over $6m in Fairtrade Premium was paid directly to workers on Fairtrade certified estates and those in smallholder organisations to be used for community benefit including schools, healthcare and community resources as decided by the communities themselves. The problem is that due to low market sales only 6% of Fairtrade certified tea is sold under Fairtrade terms. This means many tea estates and small farmers receive a tiny amount of Fairtrade Premium to improve the lives of workers and their families.

Fairtrade has long been championing and advocating for industry-wide change in the tea sector, primarily for more tea to be sold under the terms of Fairtrade.  

A recent Fairtrade Foundation study in Malawi shows what is possible when tea estates are able to secure a higher proportion of sales on Fairtrade terms. In Malawi, workers have had significant benefits, including subsidised maize and fertiliser to improve food security, health and education programmes, and solar panels for homes.

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We in Fairtrade recognise the need to continually develop our system to make it even more inclusive, relevant and fit for the future. For example we are currently working with tea producers in East Africa, including workers at Mabale Growers Tea Factory who featured in  The Tea Trail’ and have been significantly affected by climate change due to tea dependence on stable temperatures and rainfall patterns.  Recent storms, droughts, hailstorms and frosts are damaging tea bushes and decreasing leaf quality and productivity.  Producers are worried about the impact of climate change and have requested training and support.  They feel pressured with high costs of inputs, energy, labour and credit making it very hard for them to implement new practices.

This is where AdapTea comes in. This is a two-year project to support 21 Fairtrade tea farmer organisations in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya to adapt to climate change. The project is benefiting approximately 14 000 farmers.  

Ultimately we all need to work harder. The different players in the tea industry need to form stronger partnerships and bring workers’ and producers’ voices to the fore. And as tea drinkers we must also realise that every single one of those cuppas represents a powerful choice for change, if we choose it.


Watch ‘The Tea Trail’ on BBC iPlayer here.

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