I am writing this in Blantyre, where the largest international meeting on tea in Malawi has just concluded. And it was a truly historic event. Everyone who has an interest in the future of the Malawian tea industry was there: all the tea producers of Malawi; all the key international buyers, agents, and traders; the Malawian Minister of Labour as well as senior civil servants from the Agriculture and Labour Ministries; the workers’ union; and all the international environmental and social standards organisations, NGOs, and development partners.

Malawi 2020 Partnership Photo

What had brought us all to that conference room in Blantyre was the need to turn the commitments made at the launch of the Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Programme, during the TEAM UP
Conference in June, into practical work programmes that would achieve our joint aim: A competitive and profitable Malawian tea industry where workers are paid a living wage and smallholders earn a living income.

It wasn’t always an easy meeting. We were discussing difficult issues: whether the supply chain was treating Malawian producers fairly; whether Malawian tea could be improved so that it fetched higher prices; whether producers could afford to pay higher wages; and the role of the recently strengthened workers’ union in wage and non-wage negotiations with the plantation companies. But we were discussing them properly; frank views were exchanged in ways that increased understanding and enabled options to be developed. The high level of attendance meant that people with the right knowledge and skills could get involved in tricky discussions and find a way forward.

Discussions at Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation meetings

The award for endurance must go to the representatives of the Malawian employers and workers’ union who held several side meetings, some going on to midnight, to start the process of collective bargaining. But I would like to pay tribute to all the participants for their commitment to the process and the effort that everyone has put into developing the work programmes that will achieve our joint goal.

The Blantyre communique, sets out what was agreed. Significant progress has already been made in key areas, with workers’ wages and green leaf prices for smallholders increasing and an agreement on improving nutrition for workers in place. Another important development was the inclusion of a strand of work around the Environment and Sustainable Energy, which is critical to the future of everyone living in tea growing areas.  As I write, the Roadmap underpinning the Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Programme is being updated to reflect the outcome of the meeting and detailed work plans and budgets are being drawn up. All signatories to the programme will be involved in at least one work stream and it is this involvement that will generate results.

So as I pack my bags and prepare for my next week in Kenya, I am leaving Blantyre with a huge amount of respect for the people involved in this programme. This is a new way of working for all of us. But this inclusive and sector-wide approach is the only way to get to a tea industry where producers, workers, and smallholders all have a brighter future.