Blog by Oxfam’s Daniel Morchain

Shaking up the system to improve the tea industry in Malawi – and the lives of its workers

19 September 2016 – Malawi’s economy runs on tobacco, tea, sugarcane and coffee. In the Southern districts of Mulanje and Thyolo tea is king. Under the almost mystical oversight of Mount Mulanje operate large tea estates and thousands of labourers. They are responsible for 80% of the region’s tea production; the remainder coming from smaller scale farmers. But despite the bird’s eye sense of progress, a 2013 study found that something wasn’t brewing right: “despite meeting legal minimum wage requirements the combined value of tea pickers’ pay and benefits in Malawi is around average for the country but only about half the World Bank’s poverty line income of $2 per person per day.” Government, private sector, NGOs and civil society organisations formed an ambitious, action-oriented coalition to address this economic and social injustice by setting up the Malawi Tea 2020 Revitalisation Programme which aims to provide a living wage to tea labourers and to improve structural conditions for small scale tea farmers.

This June, one year into Malawi Tea 2020, we got some of its stakeholders together – including tea pickers themselves – at the foot of Mount Mulanje to look in detail at the hazards, the issues, the risks and vulnerabilities that all social groups in Mulanje and Thyolo are facing. We wanted to check how the realities on the ground fit with the Roadmap that has been guiding Malawi Tea 2020, ask one another whether the priorities we set remain the key priorities, whether we missed something, and should we tweak or add some elements here and there. Basically, we also wanted to shake things up a little bit, get the Steering Committee to hear new perspectives and challenge the way we all have been framing Malawi 2020 – as well as to get tea labourers and the government more involved in this process.

The two-day Vulnerability & Risk Assessment (VRA) workshop mostly validated Malawi Tea 2020’s Roadmap, but it did shed light on some important areas that were not fully covered:

  • Malawi Tea 2020 should acknowledge and develop a joint position on how the programme will engage – directly or indirectly – with macro level issues of ‘population growth’, ‘unresolved land issues’ and ‘climate change’. These came up as highly relevant and the source of negative impacts on small scale tea farmers and for labourers. We can’t look at the micro picture without really understanding its relation to the macro.
  • While Malawi Tea 2020 has established a dialogue with the private sector (tea estates, distributors, traders, retailers domestically and overseas) and with government, communication between these two actors is limited. Malawi 2020 can be a platform for improving this relationship and enable discussions on issues like the sharing of responsibilities for basic service provision between estates and state, or the impact of a living wage in the tea industry for other key crops of the Malawian economy.
  • Providing dialogue spaces for stakeholders and particularly bringing marginalised groups into the decision making arena of Malawi Tea 2020 as true partners was an important step of this workshop. A stakeholder engagement strategy should be put in place that truly promotes the empowerment of marginalised groups within the industry and sets roles and responsibilities for all partners in achieving this goal.
  • It is sometimes argued that the ‘low’ quality of Malawi’s tea has a direct relation to the low wage paid to labourers. This correlation has not been properly established – nor the claim that higher prices for tea would result in higher wages. The truth behind low wages is more complex than this.

As I go on about these topics of inclusiveness, multi-stakeholder spaces for dialogue, and other hopey-changey stuff, something I read recently on climate change research came to mind: “…as long as [climate change adaptation] literature and policies are conceptualized within existing national and international development policies and dominated by approaches that narrowly address vulnerability, they will continue to promote responses to the symptoms rather than the causes of vulnerability, and may exacerbate inequities and power asymmetries that hinder or delay local adaptation efforts.”

Malawi 2020 offers a unique opportunity to challenge the ways things are normally done; to look holistically at the role of the tea industry in Malawi – its potential, its responsibilities, its opportunities; to lead the way in being socially responsible, just and fair. Malawi 2020 is an opportunity for industry, labourers and government to rethink, jointly, what equitable development can look like.

Daniel Morchain works at Oxfam GB as Global Adviser – Climate Change Adaptation, Resilience & Agriculture | Programme Strategy & Impact Team and is project co-lead – ASSAR ‘Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions.

Revitalising the Malawian tea industry

for the benefit of everyone