26 February 1999

A refreshingly fair deal for tea growers at last

BUYING British is a way for consumers to support farmers and keep Britain farming. But what about food that cannot be grown in this country such as tea and coffee?

One way of helping growers in developing countries achieve a decent return from their small farms is to buy fair trade tea and coffee. Fair trade products are marketed by companies which offer farmer suppliers a fair deal. Standards are endorsed by the Fairtrade Foundation, whose members include leading charities such as Oxfam.

Ugandan farmers, Polly Trikwendera and Jossiah Kinanga, recently visited the UK to help promote the launch of a new fair trade tea called Teadirect. Mr Trikwendera has a 4ha (10-acre) farm in Bushenyi, western Uganda and is chairman of the local tea factory. His is one of the biggest farms in the area, most are 0.4ha (1 acre) and average earnings just £300 a year.

Tea is an important crop for small growers because it can be harvested throughout the year to provide a regular income, says Mr Trikwendera. The green leaf is processed in the factory, owned by the growers since privatisation in 1995, and sent to the market in Mombasa more than 700 miles away. The growers hoped privatisation would boost incomes through dividends on factory profits but despite producing top quality tea, in the highest grades, returns are very low and many cannot afford to educate their children or pay for health care for their families.

Mr Kinanga, who is chairman of the Kayonza tea factory in Western Uganda, says seasonal price slumps are the biggest problem facing growers. Tea grows very well under heavy rainfall and high temperatures which means production peaks during the two rainy seasons. Consequently the Mombasa market is swamped twice a year with tea from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and prices plummet. This year, says Mr Kinanga, prices fell far below the cost of production.

&#42 Benefit growers

In future Mr Kinanga hopes the move to supply Teadirect will benefit growers. Teadirect is offering a social premium payment of about 50p/kg which he hopes will help to protect them from price fluctuations. But the money will not be paid to individuals. "Our problems, such as poor roads, schools and health services are not individual but social. They affect the whole community so we intend to use the premium to benefit all the farmers as a group," says Mr Kinanga.

The tea growers also hope Teadirect will shortly introduce a minimum price to ensure prices do not fall below production cost. Humphrey Pring, marketing director of the fair trade company Cafedirect, which has launched Teadirect, says there is still more research to do before a minimum price can be set. "The volatility of the world price of tea is a problem for growers selling tea through auctions, which is how the majority of sales are conducted.

Mr Pring adds that as a fair trade company, Cafedirect aims to maximise the income and security of growers through the social premium payment, which boosts growers returns by an extra 26%. And for consumers it offers a top-quality tea which tastes as good, if not better, than familiar household brand names.

&#42 Sensible idea

"Once consumers come into contact with the fair trade idea they like it a lot. It seems a decent, sensible way to do business globally. Its not charity, but its a new way of doing business with the Third World that is transparent, non-exploitative and mutually beneficial and that is a very refreshing change for many consumers," says Mr Pring.

Liz Mason