Sustainability Transformations in Malawi’s Tea Industry; reflections from Margaret Sagan, AC4 Fellow

Photo: Tea fields in Thyolo, Malawi

Our team research project followed up on our coursework in the Business and Human Rights clinic, which centered around guidelines for responsible agricultural investment.  In Malawi, the major agricultural commodities grown for export are tobacco, sugar, and tea.  For our AC4-sponsored project, we decided to look at Malawi’s tea industry.  We wanted to understand how the industry is changing, how Malawian businesses participate in multi-stakeholder sustainability initiatives, and what challenges Malawian businesses face in progressing on sustainability goals.  We found that Malawi is making incremental progress towards a more resilient tea industry.

By listening to the perspectives of various stakeholders in Malawi Tea 2020 and the Malawian tea industry, we wanted to understand how approaches to tea production and sustainability are changing within Malawi.  What approaches might ensure the future profitability of Malawian tea producers while protecting workers’ rights?  Today in the United States, we consume many tropical commodities.  In what areas has sustainability improved the lives of farmers living in tropical regions, and where has it fallen short?  What approaches to development are most likely to improve the livelihoods and social mobility of rural peoples?

One of my teammates, also from SIPA, Stephanie Regalia, and I traveled together and were joined for part of the trip by our teammate from Columbia Law School Anita Dorett.  Given time and budget constraints, we did not do a quantitative survey.  Within Malawi, we discussed sustainable tea production with stakeholders in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mulanje, Thyolo, and Zomba.  For the fieldwork portion of our research, we interviewed private sector, development, and NGO participants in sustainability initiatives. We also attended a conference on changes to Malawi’s customary land law. On a previous trip to Malawi, we interviewed smallholder tea farmers.

Producers we spoke with were interested in finding innovative ways to work together, at the national and regional level.  Malawi has its own tea research foundation, which propagates drought and disease-resistant cultivars.  With more investment, it would be possible for more farmers to refurbish their fields with new tea plants.  There is also an opportunity for marketing campaigns that promote various attributes of Malawian teas, to shape buyer and consumer perceptions of Malawi as an origin.  This could support the entrance of more tea producers into specialty processing.

Since 2015, successive collective bargaining agreements have raised wages for tea workers, but more progress needs to be made to meet living wage benchmarks.  Attention must also be given to improving agricultural extension and support for smallholder tea farmers.  Malawi needs a comprehensive rural development strategy that reduces unemployment through education, diversified agriculture, and moving some people out of agriculture and into other sectors.  Inflation has caused economic hardship for all Malawians, and made it more difficult for them to access credit.  Blended finance instruments could help more SME tea producers access the capital to improve yields and quality.  New technology could also help.  A collaborative pilot between partners that include buyer Unilever and producer Lujeri Tea Estates is improving supply chain traceability using blockchain technology.  The increased verification made possible through blockchain reduces risks for partnering banks and is meant to allow participating producers to access better loan terms.  If successful, this would help sustainability work as a competitive business model, and help Malawian producers overcome the challenges of their current banking environment.

While there is still a great deal of work to be done, it’s inspiring to see the creative approaches underway, as the Malawian tea industry adapts to changing conditions and moves toward a sustainable future.

Author: Margaret Sagan is a member of the team award of the 2018 Graduate Fellowship. She has now completed her Masters in International Affairs from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and was a student in the Business and Human Rights Clinic studying large-scale land investments in Malawi. This research was developed from that study focusing on responsible investment in property and land.

Photo provided by author.

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