Friday Goodson, 55, has worked at Lujeri Tea Estate for about two decades. He comes from Kuta Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mabuka in Mulanje. However, Goodson cannot imagine life without tea estates.
“Of course, it has been an on and off journey,” he says: “I prefer joining the estate when it is harvesting season because this is when we make more money.”
Goodson says apart from the job opportunity, living near tea estates turned him into a tea grower. He has a tea field which, he says, is his main source of income.
Although Goodson has a big piece of land, it has been hard to expand the field. He blames it on contracts that previous leaf buyers were offering. He says he used to sell his produce to a certain company, but the prices were too low to save for investment. Added to this was the challenge of farm input loans and receiving wages.
“There was a time when it took over year to get paid. I remember others uprooting the cash crop to grow maize,” he explains.
However, the situation has changed as tea estates buy tea from smallholder farmers. Among others, Satemwa, Lujeri and Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM) tea estates are offering better prices. On average, these three buy the tea at K75 per kilogramme (kg), K10 more than what others are offering. The estates provide farmers with farm inputs on loan.
Goodson sells his tea to Lujeri and is happy that the price was revised from K73.10 to K80.40 per kg.
“I am happy that the prices are now attractive. It motivates me to work hard and increase the size of my field,” he says, adding that he got a K52 000 (about $82) bonus in 2015.
Furthermore, working at the estate has enabled him to construct a four-bedroomed house roofed with corregated iron sheets. He also owns property such as a television set and a sofa. He says on average, he pockets K34 000 per month from smallholder farming, and even more during the tea plucking season.
“I am able to pay school fees for my children. Without these estates, I do not know what could have been our source of income,” he says.
The few estates that offer good prices are affiliated to Fair Trade International (FTI). FTI is a grouping of tea growers across the world. An estate can only be a member if it produces good quality tea both in the field and on the market, provides good living and working conditions for employees such as decent houses, meals and wages.
Member estates have access to international markets affiliated to FTI which offer attractive prices. In addition, they are entitled to a premium for corporate social responsibility services.
Currently, only EPM, Satemwa and Lujeri estates are affiliates in Malawi.
“FTI carries annual audits which help us maintain good standards. Lujeri has changed for the better since we joined this grouping. Even communities appreciate,” says Davis Matanda, Lujeri personnel and administration manager.
Kuta Village lies about 40km from either Muloza Health Centre or Mulanje District Hospital. The roads are in bad state and the available mode of transport is bicycles.
Lujeri has a health centre and Matanda says they have an ambulance that serves a population of 30 000. Satemwa and EPM estates have similar facilities. In addition, the three estates offer other services such as education and water to surrounding communities.
Malawi Tea Research (MTR) project reports that tea estates have supported 6 500 to 8 000 smallholder farmers in Thyolo and Mulanje, who share 15 percent of the estates’ land.
Tea estates are the biggest employer in the two districts. MTR says Mulanje estates alone employ 40 000 people who are taxed, contributing to government revenue.
In Africa, FTI rates Malawi as the second largest tea producer after Kenya. Malawi produces approximately 10 percent of the African tea. According to MTR, in 2006 the country exported 44.6 million kg valued at $48 123 417 (around K34 billion).
With support from FTI, the three estates work with smallholder farmers, who sell their harvest to FTI accredited markets through the estates. In turn, the estates receive a premium which they use for corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. Just to mention a few, in the last decade, Satemwa has connected 4 500 people to borehole water, constructed classroom blocks, offered secondary school and college bursaries and connected 1 100 households to solar power.
In Lujeri, among others, the estate constructed Naphimba Maternity Wing, a guardian shelter and connected the facility to solar power and running water, connected 4 000 households to tap water from Mulanje Mountain, paid school fees to orphans, improved bridges, improved the road network and provided inputs for smallholder farmers.