Tea has been cultivated for thousands of years, reaching all corners of the world. It transcends borders because it requires global trade and yet each locale cultivates its own flavour and drinking customs.Tea truly has the power to bring people together, and has the power to sustain the lives of those involved in its production for thousands of years to come.

Why? Leaf to bag to cup

People all over the world enjoy tea, so much so that it’s the second most popular beverage in the world behind water. It’s great with cookies, cake, or just by itself. Some of us drink it with nearly everything and rely on this hot beverage to satisfy our cravings. Yet, those who consume tea are not the only one’s reliant on its existence; 15 million people are dependent on tea production – from leaf to bag to cup.

  • Farm

    Asia is the world’s largest tea producer and accounts for 70% of the world tea market. Most tea begins its journey on a farm or plantation. Many tea growers are smallholder farmers – who total 9 million out of the estimated 13 million people involved in tea production.

    Smallholders produce the majority of tea in China, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, which together account for almost 50% of worldwide tea production. On the farm, the seedlings are planted and once the bushes are ready to be picked, they are gathered by pickers, who are usually women.

    The female labour force can pick as much as 21 kilograms of tea per day per person. After the tea is picked, the leaves are weighed on the premises and are then transported to the next stage of transformation from tea leaf to tea bag — the tea factory.

  • Factory

    When the tea reaches the factory, it is processed so that some moisture is removed and the final products leave the factory with 2.5-3% moisture. At this stage of processing, machinery is used to sift, shred, ferment, and dry the tea.

    All tea is made from the leaf of the plant Camellia sinensis, which means specific types of tea are made by processing the tea leaves differently. It is during drying that the colour of the tea leaves change. Often how the factories process the tea determines the quality of the tea and thus how much farmers’ tea will fetch.

  • Brands

    After the tea leaves the factory, it is auctioned and transported to companies or brands, which are also called packers or blenders. At this stage a critical processes of called blending is undertaken.

    This is where the most financial value is added to the tea. Blending often takes the just processed tea from the smallholders and mixes it with higher quality tea, usually from the larger tea estates. Now, the tea is ready for retail. From one pound of loose tea leaves more than 200 cups of tea can be brewed.

Challenges A hot topic

Tea may be one of the most widely enjoyed beverages in the world, but its production is anything but sustainable for the smallholder farmers, women, and land that involved in the production and processing of this popular beverage.

  • People

    Problems on the farm

    Smallholder famers are now the primary global tea producers. Asia produces 70% of the world’s tea, and many of those producing our tea are smallholder farms in China, India, and Sri Lanka. These smallholders see less than 3% of the retail value of tea.

    Smallholders receive so little money because they are so far down in the supply chain because in current production methods most of the value of tea is on the retail level, after the tea is processed. When the tea is exported further down the supply chain, the final stages of blending significantly increase the value of the product, placing a large gap between farm production and retail from which farmers receive little benefit.

    To add to their struggles, smallholders often lack the technical knowledge and inputs to produce higher-grade tea. This leads to inefficient fertiliser and pesticide use and lower quality product, creating a cycle of poverty.

    Even plantation workers don’t fare much better. Large tea plantations swallow the landscape of North East India, forming their own ecosystems in which people work, eat, and sleep on the premises. Many of these facilities are dilapidated with cramped housing, poor sanitation, limited diets, and weak labour rights.

    Women form the majority of tea workers on large estates, making up 50-80% of the workforce in some places. Discriminatory practices such as lower wages are widespread. Women also face sexual harassment, a lack of health services and few promotion opportunities.

    When women are tea farmers, they face the added challenge of not being given access to land, credit, training, cooperative membership and a general lack of information. As tea growers and estate workers, women face difficulties in supporting themselves.

    Smallholders also lack formal ways to organize, which further hinders their working with large tea brands organization. 

  • Environment

    Clearing the way

    Tea is a fast-growing industry. Between 1993 and 2010 tea consumption grew 60%, and global tea production stands at over 4 million tonnes per year. To meet this growing demand, adequate lands are needed.

    Tea is grown on some of the most ecologically sensitive areas on the planet. In North East India, areas where forests and grasslands came together have been cleared. Clearing land to make way for tea farms, whether by smallholders or industrial plantations, causes the displacement of indigenous plants and wildlife, which reduces biodiversity and threatens entire ecosystems.

    When tea is grown as a monoculture, a loss of biodiversity also occurs. Without biodiversity, the soil cannot produce the nutrients required to be healthy and productive. To reverse these problems and to aid the health of tea bushes, artificial fertilisers and pesticides are applied. These chemicals seep into the ground and result in even more soil degradation to which even more agrochemicals are applied to sustain the same yields.

Track record Tea time

  • 2019

    In Argentina, participants in our sustainable tea initiative produced 15,600 tonnes of green leaves for the US market, 25% more than the original target. Nearly 4,000 hectares were farmed using good agricultural practices, three times the target. A total of 166 producers were trained during the project and 140 of them succeeded in obtaining Rainforest Alliance certification. In Asia, we reached out to seven major small tea growers’ associations. With a joint membership of over 60,000 growers, these account for nearly 200 million kg of tea a year. We aimed to register half the growers for our TRINITEA sustainable framework, with the remainder to be done in 2020. In fact, we registered over 36,000, nearly all of whom were trained to comply with TRINITEA and to follow good agricultural practices.

  • Solidaridad has achieved consensus on sustainable governance within the tea sector. It has been able to improve the livelihoods of farmers through raising awareness on the benefits of collectivisation and encouraging them to form self-help groups. Solidaridad also enhanced the understanding of tea pricing for small-scale farmers. While prevailing certification standards still have limitations, they provide an opportunity to engage with the tea industry stakeholders through national platforms and allow for discussions around more complex issues which cannot be addressed through certification alone. Solidaridad has been able to leverage these new approaches to gradually transform beyond the certification agenda.

  • 2016

    Tea is amongst the most competitive products in the beverage industry. The competition is high and the sector needs to be seriously concerned about developing an innovative strategy for its product, process and markets. It also needs to be fully aligned with the global sustainability agenda. The sector, when viewed in regional contexts, is generally considered to be mature and too slow to adapt to change in both behavioral and in its adaptation of current technology. Despite that, it continues to remain the second cheapest beverage after water.

  • 2015

    Served every morning to nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, tea continues to be the most popular non-alcoholic beverage and has gained further popularity as a health drink in view of its medicinal value. Developing sustainable supply chains in Asia remains an important challenge, as producers and smallholders continue to operate outside the scope of global sustainability programmes even though 74% of the world’s tea is consumed in Asia.

  • 2014

    Solidaridad has played a pivotal role in implementing the Trustea programme, which aims to establish sustainable production in the Indian tea market, and the Teh Lestari scheme in Indonesia. Our partners in India are the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Tata Global Beverages.

  • 2013

    Solidarided helped implement the Teh Lestari and Trustea codes in Indonesia and India.

  • 2012

    Solidaridad initiated a programme funded by the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and Hindustan Unilever Ltd. designed to transform half of the tea produced in India.

  • 2011

    The five-year India Domestic Sustainable Tea Programme (2012-2016) began.

  • 2011

    Solidaridad facilitated the development of sustainability guidelines for the China tea industry. Also in Asia, Solidaridad established the Lestari national sustainability standard for Indonesian tea.

  • 2010

    Together with UTZ Certified and LEI, a long-term impact study began in Kenya and Malawi.

  • 2010

    Rooibos farmers in South Africa became the first to adopt the UTZ standard for Rooibos tea.

  • 2007

    Solidaridad began tea programme in partnership with UTZ Certified.

  • 2018

    In Indonesia, Solidaridad provided technical support to 30,000 smallholder farmers to access loans available from the Indonesian government to allow them to develop small tea processing factories. We also facilitated the signing of a historic agreement between ITA and UPASI (India), China Tea Marketing Association (China) and Indonesian Tea Marketing Association for a pan-Asia coordination of sustainability initiatives. For the first time, all three countries recognized each other’s sustainability frameworks for improving the tea sector.

Solution Reading the tea leaves

By linking sustainable suppliers to meet a growing demand, we help smallholders and estate workers improve not only their yields, labour conditions, and farming practices, but their ability to yield the most out of their lives.

  • Helping farmers forward

    Smallholder farmers are the world’s major tea producers, and we believe that strengthening farmers through spreading good agricultural practices, supporting farmer organizations, and assisting with certification will benefit farmers, their families and the environment. This is how we’ll make tea sustainable.

    As smallholder farmers often lack the knowledge to sustainable produce tea, we train farmers on good practices and agricultural management, including pesticide and fertiliser use. In Malawi, 500 lead farmers have been trained in Good Agricultural Practices.

    To spread knowledge and promote best practices, we also seek to be as extensive as possible. To this end, we partnered with the East African Tea Association, developing a tea production curriculum and training 16 trainers. These trainers then were qualified to train other field staff, farmers, and production staff.

    We are also linking estates to smallholders. In our Sri Lanka programme, we are connecting smallholders to estates. By uniting these two parties, smallholders gain greater access to tea markets and increase their incomes through using the bargaining power of larger estates.

    We also work to improve gender equality on Sri Lankin estates. We use a gender-sensitive approach, which seeks to involve women producer support activities by giving them access to training and capacity building, making certification gender sensitive, and also fostering gender awareness among men.

    Organizing smallholders is key to fostering a sustainable tea industry where all can profit. In India, the world’s second largest tea growing nation behind China, we entered into A Memorandum of Understanding with the National Federation of Small Tea Growers, ensuring labour rights are respected and living wages are earned.

  • Making tea together

    In the tea industry, companies have the most influence when it comes to improving the sustainability of tea supply chains. We see the value of creating corporate social responsibility beyond certification in order to make sure sustainability is not only a word on the lips of farmers and workers, but also in board rooms.

    As with smallholder farmers, knowledge is needed to transform companies’ approaches towards supply chain sustainability. We assist companies by developing their approach towards stakeholders, corporate social responsibility mechanisms, monitoring, strategic community development, as well as providing risk assessment and management support.

    This type of corporate assistance further aids in the sourcing of sustainably produced tea from smallholders, which closes the gaps in the supply chain between companies and smallholders. To this end, industry leaders Unilever and Pickwick have committed to sourcing all of their tea from Rain Forrest Alliance and UTZ Certified farms respectively.

    By partnering with companies and farmers alike, and also seeking change at the policy level regarding sexual harassment, wages, and labour rights, we will create sustainable change throughout the supply chain to meet the world’s growing thirst for tea. This is the type of change we can bring about to begin producing sustainable tea together.

    "Addressing more complex issues like the need for living wages, nutrition, tackling of alcoholism, gender issues, and fair working conditions needs a strategy beyond certification. Solidaridad seeks to address these challenges through working with relevant local stakeholders in the different tea growing regions where programmes are in place."

    Global Tea Programme Coordinator Solidaridad

Impact Exceeded Expectations

Each year, we reach out to thousands of workers and farmers to teach good agricultural practices, support farmer organizations and assist with certification

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  • Contact Information

    Ranjan Circar

    International Programme Coordinator, Tea