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.
There is something about being on a tea plantation that warms teagirl’s heart. It’s always a reminder of the true core and purpose of the business we all work in. Walking through tea fields. Seeing tea pluckers. Seeing the work being done in the factory; and hearing the tea garden manager speak. These are all the elements that are at the fundamental core of our business.
Today teaigrl’s heart was indeed warmed – as we visited a truly special tea estate – Satemwa. It traces it’s history back to1928, when Maclean Kay, came from Scotland and purchased land from a tobacco farmer in order to produce tea.
For teagirl, what was most fascinating about Satemwa however, is in what it has done in creating a truly unique specialty tea line; what they call ‘Farm Stall’. I know, Malawi is not the country we associate with specialty tea. And teagirl does admit that she was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see the selection laid out for us to taste. From white to green to oolong and black, smoked tea, aged post-fermented tea and even herbals.
When I saw the selection, I did assume that they had brought in a specialist from one of the producing countries to help develop this line. But they had not. What was in front of me was a true labour of love. A recognition of the opportunity within this ever growing sector and a commitment to making it work with the varietals that exist.
Alexander, the grandson of Maclean, has created truly special teas that stand proud to what they represent. A white tea that is delicate and smooth. A green tea that is vegetative with a subtle sweetness. An oolong that is toasty and nutty. All however, with it’s own unique quality of being from Malawi.
The estate also does a lot of work with smallholders – small growers that sell their green leaf to the factory – which in and of itself is not unique to the Malawian model. What Satemwa does however that is unique is maintain the connection to that smallholder in its end product. So a beautiful leaf black tea that can be traced back to a particular grower in the region.
I raise my hat to the work being done on this estate. They have created a model based on sustainable agricultural practices, catering to the traditional tea industry as well as establishing this uniquely Malawian specialty tea brand.
Chapeau! To each and every one involved. Because today, it was not only teagirl’s heart that was warmed for being on a tea estate; but it was also an important lesson: you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.
As most of you know, I teach a lot of tea classes…and give a lot of talks on tea. The one thing I premise all my talks with is the following: ‘I do not know everything about tea. Nobody does. Remember that humility’. And today, I think, every single person that was a part of our events, was reminded of that.
I led an afternoon session today in Malawi, hosted by the Tea Association of Malawi, attended by Managing Directors, Buyers and Growers of the tea estates – on cupping (tasting tea) as well as food pairing. What could teagirl possibly teach people who have been in the industry far longer than I have?? That, I am certain, was the thought on everyone’s mind as they came to the event.
Our afternoon started with a cupping – as you see in the picture above. Not a cupping of teas from Malawi, as was perhaps expected. But a cupping of the large variety of teas we enjoy in the North American market – white, green, oolong, black, jasmine, lapsang soughong, pu-erh. With some skepticism and a lot of curiosity, everyone, smelled and tasted – and enjoyed. Full of questions about teas they are not normally exposed to.
We followed the cupping with another new approach to tea – tea and food pairing. This time with teas from Malawi. Explaining the principals behind flavour and pairings, I took my audience through options and ideas and combinations. Were there raised eyebrows at this new approach? Yes. Were they however eager to try it and be open to it? Again…yes!
The afternoon then took a turn, it was the turn of the Tea Association of Malawi to feature the teas of Malawi – preparing a cupping (tea tasting) of what they had to offer. And teagirl tasted – and teagirl was full of questions…and teagirl learned. I am richer for it.
That is the humility I want all of us to remember. This industry is so rich and so vibrant – and it remains that way so long as we remember that we all have something to learn from eachother.