There is much that was discussed during my short time in Malawi.  The primary reason I was there was to help provide a framework and information on the Canadian tea industry and opportunities within the specialty tea sector.  But all in all, there were a lot of goals that were tossed around – empowering smallholders, acquiring a living wage for workers, empowerment of women.

All of these concepts are lofty and worthy.  But they are not simple goals nor are they goals that can be achieved in isolation.  Because every country faces similar challenges when trying to address these issues.

Let’s start with living wages.  Living wages, by definition, is the amount of money required to live based on the actual cost of living – it is not the minimum wage.  We like, in the west, to go to developing countries – or in the tea industry, producing countries – and reprimand them for not providing their workers with a living wage.  But let’s for one moment take a step back.  The living wage in Toronto is about $18.50/hr.  The minimum  wage is $11.25.  Slight disconnect.  We rank 12th out of 17 peer countries when it comes to income inequality.

Let’s look at the empowerment of women.  Are women in producing countries in positions of power…likely not.  In Canada however, according to the last numbers collected by Statistics Canada, women represented 47.2% of the workforce.  When it comes to income earned however, women earn $0.72 to every dollar earned by a man and in 2014 there was only one woman CEO on the Canadian TSX.  Again – disconnect.

When we look at issues such as living wages, the empowerment of women and increased prices for smallholders, we need to be genuine about our intentions – and by that I mean, looking at realistically and honestly, the entire picture.  The tea industry is made up of multiple layers – starting with the smallholder (the farmer that grows green leaf and sells it to the producer), producers (who take that green leaf and manufacture it to a made product, the buyers (who purchase that made tea and sell it to various packers on the international tea market), the packers (who pack that made tea, often adding value by blending, into teabags, boxing and making it market ready), the retailers (who purchase the finished product to put on their grocery store shelves), the consumer (who purchases the product for final consumption).  So how can we look at only one portion of this chain and try and fix a problem(s) that is far more complex than we sometimes like to pretend it is.

I’ve shown you that living wages and the empowerment of women are issues faced throughout the world…not a simple problem.  So how can we assume that it is a simple problem in producing countries.  Prices paid for tea are part of an entire chain, so again, how can we assume that it can be fixed by only looking at one link in the chain.

When consumers in the west have been conditioned to shop for bargains – looking for 2 for 1 deals on their tea, purchasing a box of 100 teabags for $5, where do we think the margin is on that product?  When retailers are selling that box of 100 teabags for $5, how much do we think they are willing/able to pay the packer who has made that product?  How much do we think is left for that packer to pay the buyer.  And how much is left from that piece of the pie for the buyer to pay the producer and in the end…the producer to pay the smallholder.  And yet we continue to go at the producers in developing countries accusing them of not paying smallholders enough for their green leaf.  And the truth is that they don’t.  But the problem didn’t start there.  The problem is with us.  Discount shopping = Discount wages.

It is each and every one of us that is a part of the problem.  And until we accept that responsibility, all attempts at solving the injustices we see will continue to fail.