Joining forces at a national level to address root causes of endemic poverty
Malawi, East Africa: A young child is nestled on her mother’s back, wrapped snuggly in a chitenje and napping soundly as her mother moves up and down seemingly endless rows of tea plants, picking the vibrant green leaves with expert efficiency and filling basket after basket before the sun goes down on another full day of work in the fields.
Based on Malawi’s malnutrition rate of approximately 50%, the chances are high that this child’s growing body will become stunted physically and in other developmental areas, notwithstanding her mother’s wages and in-kind earnings as a worker in the Malawian tea industry.
As international non-governmental organization (NGO) campaigns have highlighted since the early 2000s, wages remain low in the Malawian tea business despite it being the largest formal employer in all of Malawi. Approximately 62% of Malawians live below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of US$1.25 per day; approximately 50,000 tea plantation workers were documented in 2013 as being trapped in conditions of extreme poverty. Research commissioned to calculate what a living wage would be in the Malawian tea industry concluded that wages and in-kind benefits would need to double to achieve a living wage.
In 2015, 20 different groups along the Malawian tea chain got together and agreed that more had to be done to tackle the serious issue of worker wages in their industry. The resulting Malawi Tea 2020 Revitalisation Programme (Malawi Tea 2020) is a coalition of Malawian tea producers, the largest international tea buyers, NGOs, relevant certification organizations, and donors.
The initiative is aiming to “create a competitive Malawian tea industry where workers earn a living wage and smallholders are thriving.” The partnership is endorsed by the Malawian government and involves companies of a range of sizes. All participating tea producers are part of the program through the Tea Association of Malawi (TAML).
The Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), TAML, Oxfam, IDH (the Sustainable Trade Initiative), and GIZ (the German Agency for International Cooperation) jointly lead the initiative, which is the first of its kind in the tea industry.
Recognizing that living wages cannot be tackled in isolation but must instead be addressed using a multifaceted approach, Malawi Tea 2020’s five-pronged initiative and respective results to date include:
“Malawi Tea 2020 is tackling the issue of extreme poverty in the Malawi tea workforce from a holistic approach. It’s looking at innovation and investment in the industry; it’s seriously examining what a living wage is in this context and how buyers’ procurement practices must change to meet that; it’s empowering smallholders and recognizing their important role in all this; it’s linking to the sector’s environmental efficiency and sustainability; and it’s bringing a gender lens to all it does.”
In addition, a key highlight of the program has been its ongoing work around sustainable procurement practices. In building out this area, the initiative commissioned Accenture Development Partnerships to develop a methodology to calculate the “additional cost of paying workers a living wage and for this cost to be fairly shared across the tea value chain.” Consultations on the proposed model are currently underway. At the same time, the initiative is seeking additional brands and traders to expand the program to cover 100% of the Malawian tea industry.
“Working on living wages in the context of Malawi Tea 2020 isn’t just about paying workers more. It’s about taking a holistic approach that breaks down what we’re really trying to achieve and coming up with various programs and targets that realistically support the development of a sustainable tea industry in Malawi.
Scale and traction are needed to effect real change when tackling these complex issues. For some companies, it might initially feel uncomfortable to engage with your competitors in this way, but you can and should work through that in order to use your collective influence to drive positive impacts that just won’t happen without collaboration across the industry.
Also, all of the different actors involved in an initiative like Malawi Tea 2020 will have different perspectives; and that’s ok. It’s when no issues are arising that you have to worry, since this likely means that people aren’t speaking up. Having uncomfortable conversations about what works and what doesn’t work is an important part of the process and companies should be flexible and adapt their approaches based on what they learn along the way from the network of knowledge and various areas of expertise that should be involved.”