Why I had a bitter cup of tea




I trust it is not an exaggeration to declare that Malawians love their tea. Tea and Malawians cannot be separated. Tea is arguably the most popular hot beverage many Malawian households consume.

Predominantly grown in the Southern Region districts of Thyolo and Mulanje over 18 000 hectares (ha) and about 650ha in Nkhata Bay in the Northern Region, tea was introduced in Malawi before 1900.

Since then, tea has become one of Malawi’s strategic crops, accounting for an estimated eight percent of total export earnings, ranking second only to tobacco which is touted to fetch about 60 percent in export revenue as the main export crop.

Malawi is rated as the second major tea producing nation after Kenya on the African continent. Export destinations for Malawi tea include Britain, South Africa, United States of America, Canada, Pakistan and the Middle East.

In monetary terms, figures from the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) show that Malawi earned $14.7 million (about K10.8 billion) from 45.6 kilogrammes (kg) exported in 2017. In 2016, on the other hand, 43 million kg of tea fetched $11.9 million (about K8.7 billion) in export revenue.

To fetch the stated revenues, tea prices averaged $1.83 (about K1 350.54) per kg in 2017 and $1.55 or K1 143.90 for the same quantity the previous year, according to the RBM figures.

Like many of my compatriots, tea is my favourite hot beverage. I love my cup of tea regardless of the weather.

Further, I get the tea inspiration from Chinese poet Lo Tung who wrote: “When I drink tea, I am conscious of peace. The cool breath of heaven rises in my sleeves. And blows my cares away…”

Being a resident of Blantyre with the evergreen tea fields of Thyolo Highlands, a stone’s throw away, whenever my chips are down I also find inspiration from driving by the tea fields, breathing in the fresh air while appreciating the stunning views of the fields that nature bestows on us.

During such trips through the Thyolo and Mulanje tea estates and occasionally in the Nkhata Bay tea fields, I have had encounters with the workers in the fields, including smallholder growers. But I must say that the plight of the majority of the tea estates workers, widely projected at 50 000, is not inspiring, to say the least. They work in a highly intensive environment with paltry wages.

For the estimated 17 000 smallholder farmers, the situation is not any better. They grapple with limited access to finance and lack of access to processing machinery to add value. The latter factor puts them at the mercy of the large commercial growers and weakens their bargaining power for better rewards for their sweat. Besides “low prices”, the smallholder farmers have to part ways with $0.30 (about K221.40) per kg processing fee. That is minus other costs, meaning, in real terms, their take-home earning is even lower.

With 21 factories processing tea (16 of them owned by United Kingdom-based companies and five by locally-owned enterprises), the smallholder farmer is on the receiving end.

My heart has been bleeding this week after some colleagues posted on social media, notably Facebook and Twitter, pictures of attractively packaged ‘Malawi Tea’ on display in shops in the UK.

Ordinarily, being the patriot I am, that was enough cause for celebration that some of my beloved country’s commodities are breaking the barriers, selling beyond the borders. Imagine a 500 grams package, of course with some value-addition, going at £71 (about K71 000 or $90)?

But when I recalled that some of the tea estate workers are “paid in kind” in form of items such as maize flour and basic minimum wage, for instance, my celebration was subdued. Suddenly, my cup of tea got bitter and no amount of sugar could sweeten it.

Putting on my thinking cap, I wondered how much of the proceeds from such tea deals are ploughed back into the economy. I am still searching for an answer. With tobacco facing the growing threat to its survival by the anti-smoking lobby, I feel it is time government prioritised development of strategic crops such as tea to genuinely benefit the masses.

To sweeten the tea again, there is need for better incentives, especially to improve the plight of the smallholder farmers. Tea is always a good idea, they say. Make it real.

The Japanese have a tea proverb which goes: “If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.” Thus, transparency and accountability in the tea sector is paramount.

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