9 September 2015 was a very big day for 28 smallholder tea farmers in Malawi; it was the day they graduated from their one-year Farmer Field School course and they were the first group to do so this year. The Farmer Field School programme is coordinated by ETP and funded by the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and Tata Global Beverages as part of a multi-year programme. Set along a dustyGraduates checking results of different plucking round trials road, in the middle of a well-kept village, the graduation ceremony was held in the company of local dignitaries, senior management of the factories the farmers sell their leaf to, the board members of their smallholder association, tea buyers, and other overseas visitors like ourselves, and most importantly, fellow farmers and their families who were curious about the event and what could be learned from it. Some of these farmers will sign up for the next course starting in a few weeks’ time.

As part of the graduation event, the graduates took us on a tour around the fields. They showed us a newly planted field, going through the technical details of how they had planted and looked after the tender seedlings whilst also thinking of soil and water conservation. Only 5% of the new plants had been lost, a result they were proud of. They also showed all the visitors and on-lookers low-cost composting pits and again, were able to explain in great detail how compost should be made and what its benefits are for tea growing as well as their backyard gardens.

Farmer explaining mulching techniquesThere was a beautifully looked-after vegetable garden, with the plants’ leaves looking surprisingly green, given that this region is going through a very dry spell at the moment. People have to walk 1.2 km to the nearest well and so they put organic matter between the plants to help the soil retain moisture. Lastly, they took us to a field where they had set up two of their trials: one on fertiliser application and one on plucking rounds. The latter trial involved plucking tea at 7 day and 21 day intervals in 2 different fields and seeing what gives them the highest yields and quality of green leaf. The 21 day interval is what is currently practised by most farmers, whereas the 7 day plucking round is what is recommended by the Tea Research Foundation. The farmers concluded that plucking every 7 days will improve their income; the leafs shoot up quicker and the tea they deliver to the factories is of better quality.

Graduates with certificatesThis trial explains nicely the training approach of the Farmer Field School model; people learn through doing rather then through being lectured to. For the farmers who graduated that day – visibly with great pride – this programme is clearly working. Their knowledge of tea husbandry as well as general climate change adaptation techniques greatly improved over the past year, a key strategy in our goal of poverty alleviation. We were honoured to attend their ceremony and hand the farmers their certificates. 36 more groups in Mulanje and Thyolo will graduate in the next few weeks. Congratulations to the class of 2015!

Sebastian Michaelis, Head of Africa Tea Buying at TGB says, “It’s been fantastic to watch the programme develop over the past few years, and to witness the benefits to the farmers of higher yields, which will ultimately see a real improvement to their livelihoods. I’m excited by the huge scaling up of the programme and the positive impact it will have on the wider community.”