On Malawi’s tea estates, planting trees fosters environmental sustainability, boosts tea production, and improves the lives of tea farmers
The symbiotic relationship between Malawi’s tea estates, their neighbouring communities, and the forests around them has often been complex. Forests and woodlots play a vital role in tea production as wood is used in the process of drying the tea leaves. However, community members also rely on wood for fuel in their homes, which can create tensions in areas where the only sources of firewood are woodlots owned by the estates. At the same time, increasing deforestation presents an obstacle for everyone, including some smallholder farmers who engage in both tea production and the sale of timber and firewood.
This issue cuts to the heart of what the Malawi Tea 2020 partners are trying to achieve through the platform, whose key pillars include fostering environmental sustainability, boosting tea production, and improving the lives of tea farmers and their neighbours. Several recent efforts to increase the country’s sustainable timber supply are pointing the way to achieving these goals.
Limbani Chitseko, a tea farmer with the Msuwadzi Tea Association, also trades in timber and firewood, which he has traditionally sourced from communal forests. Unfortunately, rapid deforestation has left him barely able to supply his timber and firewood customers, which has seriously reduced his income.
Realising that he had to find a way of maintaining his business, he seized the opportunity in 2017 to get involved with a community tree nursery established with the support of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and in collaboration with Satemwa Estate and the Department of Forestry. He decided to fill all of his fallow land with fast-growing eucalyptus trees that could be sold as poles, timber or firewood. This species of tree will sprout many times after being cut — making it environmentally sustainable as well as profitable.
Since the end of 2017, Mr. Chitseko has planted more than 1,200 trees and is in the process of buying additional land to plant even more. Once the trees are ready to harvest (about five years after planting), this income will supplement his green tea leaf sales and enable him to send his children to secondary school.
The tea company Naming’omba Tea Estate Limited (NTEL) has taken steps to address a broader community issue connected with deforestation. Previously, NTEL was experiencing theft in its woodlots due to a lack of access to firewood in surrounding villages. With funding from IDH, the estate launched a project to help establish woodlots in surrounding communities by distributing tree seedlings to residents and offering them training on how to raise the trees and manage their woodlots’ sustainably.
In addition to a noticeable reduction in theft from NTEL’s woodlots, this project has given community members an opportunity to grow timber to sell to the estate, generating extra income along with firewood for their own homes. This has helped forge closer connections between the estate and the surrounding communities.
NTEL General Manager Amos Suluma explained:
Once the relationship with the communities improved, managing the estate was made a bit easier as theft of wood reduced. This project helped us to build a good relationship with the communities as we were doing things together and sharing ideas.