Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Visiting tea farmers in Kenya by Harriet Lamb

Next day, we drive miles to visit groups of tea farmers. On the way Amos, who works for Fairtrade Africa, tells me about the Government’s problems getting to grips with malaria. In one area, they gave out free mosquito nets – only to find the farmers used them to protect vegetables in their small garden plots or to create runs for their chickens!

At Michimimkuru, which luckily is nicknamed Michi as otherwise my tongue was twisted, we meet Captain Andrew Ethuru, who sits on their Premium Committee and on the Board of the dedicated Fairtrade company, Cafedirect.  Although their tea is sold to a wide range of companies’ Fairtrade products from Asda to M&S, he  is effusive in praising Cafedirect for all their extra support. In particular, they have been working together on projects to protect the environment – from fuel-efficient stoves to planting trees. Currently, they are assessing whether they can put a windmill. By their current calculations, they could power the tea factory, meet the people’s needs and still make money selling to the grid.

They are in a different position to the Machakos coffee farmers. Indeed, says the Captain (who served in the Kenyan Airforce): 'Poor people make this golden thing for you to enjoy. They are out picking in the cold and wet and the returns are very little.’ But with Fairtrade, he tells how the farmers have used the premium to upgrade and improve the tea buying centres scattered across the hills, where farmers take their tea to be weighed and collected: ‘As farmers we are supposed to be running after getting food for our family; but the buying centres need upgrading...so that’s where the Fairtrade premium comes in. You can invest in the business and the farmers still have money to buy books for the children to go to school’.

Then we're off again to Iriaini where the whole air around the tea factory smells of drying tea-leaves and soon we’re enjoying the inevitable cup. The charming and gentle, but very entrepreneurial manager, Mathew Ngenda tells how the smallholders depend too heavily on tea, and how as each generation keeps sub-dividing their plots among their children, it is becoming harder to make a living. So the cooperative have created their own Iriaini tea brand which they are selling locally, making one and a half times more than they do in the auction.

Now, the support from Traidcraft and Africa Now, they are diversifying. They have invested their premium in 400 beehives – generated from Fairtrade premiums, which should soon generate their own premiums, a sweet extra source of income for hard-pressed families, as well as providing nutritious sweetener for the family to eat. They are planting passion-fruit trees whose fruit will be sold to a local pulping factory and then on to Traidcraft for their juices. And they've got into rabbit-keeping – again providing food and income for the families. 'What’s more', smiles Mathew, 'these extra projects have roped in the men – and the bees will help pollinate the pomegranate trees, and we have opened a local shop to sell our tea – and soon our honey'.
‘So you see', he says softly leaning across the desk, ‘Fairtrade is about the whole person. We used to just think of selling tea, tea, tea. But when you bought our tea for just a little extra, we started thinking. Who would have thought of rabbit-keeping or bee-keeping before?!’

Mathew is so right. No development manual would have thought that learning to drive was a top priority. But when we move on to visit Finlays tea estate, we discover that that has proved the most popular adult education class offered by the Fairtrade Joint Body of workers and management who decide on use of the premium.  George Gesora is the clean-cut, dynamic  young Chairman of the Body, who has just been elected for his second and last three year term. He explains how the thinking of the Joint Body, and the workers, has evolved over the short time that they have been selling on Fairtrade terms – from a more  individualistic  to a more community perspective.  

With pride, and with all the detailed expenditures neatly laid out on sheet of paper, the Joint Body members enumerate their achievements from sending children to school to bringing solar lighting to villages. When Kenya erupted into violence following contested elections in 2007, they used the premiums to buy blankets and food for refugees fleeing trouble.  Because most workers left school young, they are also majoring on adult education, giving the workers the chance to add to their skills. And that’s when learning to drive came up as the most popular demand. The first 100 have now got their licence and 300 more are in the queue.
But now, like Iriaini, they have hit on the idea of using the premium to generate income so that the Premium Committee's income becomes self-sustaining.   So they are going to buy two vans which will collect the tea from different weighing stations, where the workers bring their tea, and drive it to the factory – providing a service for which the company will pay them.  Then they plan to use the vans to buy in bulk maize, people’s staple food the price of which normally fluctuates wildly. They can sell to the workers for a small profit while still being cheaper than normal.  Their colleagues over at the Finlays flower factory are thinking of investing their premiums in Government bonds, building up a community resource and using only the interest. Everyone we talk to is spilling over with ideas and, as they find their feet and their confidence, with income generating initiatives to build on the premium and lever far greater change.

But these are very early days for such schemes and everyone has only one question for me – why can they not sell more of their tea as Fairtrade? What is happening in the market? Can we encourage more people to buy Fairtrade? The farmers and workers alike need increased premiums to fund their schemes, while other groups are queueing to join the system. At Finlays, everyone is thrilled when I get a packet of Sainsbury’s Red Label tea out of my bag. That’s where most of their tea goes, mixing into a blend with teas from across Africa, and amid cries of delight, they recognise the photo of the tea worker on the side as coming from Finlays! ‘The workers are all interested in the outcome of the product’, explains George. ‘We are all concerned about the market and we need it to grow so we get more premium.’

Everyone crowds round when I explain about how we are trying to raise awareness of Fairtrade in the UK – laughing at photos of campaigners prancing about in Strictly Fairtrade tea dances or dressing up as Fairtrade bananas. They are also excited to hear of Fairtrade Africa’s plans to start selling Fairtrade in Kenya itself. I am with some of the new team at Fairtrade Africa - Amos who co-ordinates producers in east Africa, and the vivacious marketing manager Wangari who is plotting how to launch Fairtrade products within Kenya. All the producers we meet are keen to back the idea, enthusiastically suggesting how they can help - with this contact, or that celebrity or supermarket contact. It will mean badly needed extra sales. But it will also be so empowering for the farmers and workers to see their own products on their own shop shelves, changing the endless reliance on exports and bringing Fairtrade back home.

In this ambition, Kenya will be following in the footsteps of South Africa where there are producers exporting to Europe as well as selling on the very new local Fairtrade market. And that's where I travel to on Saturday. Strangely, the plane is full of Flying Dutchmen resplendent in orange. When we land at the spanking clean new Johannesburg airport, the air itself seems to be grinning at the football. it is absolutely infectious - you feel that all of Africa is excited. There are vuvuzelas everywhere, photos of footballers from the world over at every corner. And yes, a lot of Dutchmen......

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