Sipping a cup of rich, black tea from Malawi in the affluent streets of United Kingdom (UK) costs £7 (K6 620), but 8 197 kilometres away, on the ground, tea farmers and workers are breaking their backs for a song.
According to Rare Tea Company website, a cup of tea from Malawi costs K6 620 per 50 grammes or £110 (K104 041) for six months and K203 352 (£215) for a year’s subscription.
But on the foot of Mulanje Mountain, in the plains of Thyolo and Phalombe districts, over 14 000 smallholder farmers are selling the green tea at K121 per kilogramme (kg) while a tea worker takes home a paltry K1 240 a day.
In the tea industry, over 50 000 workers are braving harsh and adverse weather conditions with minimal protective gear.
And when processed, the black tea at Limbe Auction, along Kidney Crescent in Blantrye, fetches about K1 500 ($2), but tea producers still feel this far much lower compared to K6 620 per 50g or K132 400 per kg in UK, according Rare Tea Company website.
Tea Association of Malawi (Taml) board chairperson Sangwani Hara acknowledges this is something which baffles the association.
The discrepancy in the tea prices leaves the country’s smallholder farmer and worker at the end of the value chain and players in the tea industry are scratching their heads to ensure that everyone in the value chain—farmers, tea workers and producers—get the just rewards for their sweat.
The Malawi government— working with tea producers, trade unions, international tea buyers, relevant certification standards, non-governmental organisations and donors— established Malawi Tea 2020 Revitalisation Programme to ensure better tea prices and wages by 2020.
However, just two years to 2020, players in the industry are yet to agree on anything tangible.
According to the programme, the living wage was set at K3 051 per day, but the wages are stuck at K1 240 per day with no hope of adjusting upward any time soon. The workers are also expected to receive free mid-day meal, free housing, free medical and water.
Samson Anosi, a tea plucker in one of the estates in Mulanje, said beginning July this year, they received a 31 percent pay increase from K950 to K1 240 per day, but no improvement in the working conditions.
Another smallholder farmer, Jones Lazaro Kanthomba, says Malawians do not benefit from the tea industry because of the cartel that exists from the estates to the market and that government has never paid attention to the plight of tea workers and smallholder farmers.
He said: “If I may ask, does government know how smallholder tea farmers are suffering in Malawi? Do the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Finance know the smallholder farmers’ cries? Does government know of the contract agreement between the farmers and the white-owned estates? Does government know that the contract of bonuses is not conducive to the farmers?
“Imagine tea being sold on off-shore and forward contracts yet when paying out bonuses they only pay on tea sold at Limbe Auction.”
Kanthomba asked Competition and Fair Trading Commission (CFTC) to scrutinse contracts between smallholder tea farmers and foreign estates, arguing that many farmers are suffering because of poor contract arrangements.
“You will be surprised that the green leaf price depends on the dollar appreciation or devaluation. This means the farmer has to adjust the wages of workers every month. As a result, labourers are scarce resulting into low