Village Savings and Loans

Diana Mromwa, Secretary Village Savings & Loan Association and Cashier Glenorchy Tea Estate


Later today I’ll be taking part in the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. I’ll reflect on how far we have come in terms of the positive progress we are making, together with our partners on the Malawi Tea 2020 programme, where we are seeing a range of improvements to peoples’ lives in tea communities.

One of the key themes of the UN Forum is how women can effectively realise their rights. Even as I share this, the conference is starting with the first female only panel I can remember, including some of the most influential female leaders who are helping to drive forward the sustainability agenda. Two of those leaders, Marcela Manubens from Unilever and Winnie Byanyima from Oxfam, work for organisations that are hugely important in the Malawi 2020 programme, so we are delighted to see them recognised in this forum.

That got me thinking about gender equality in Malawi and the various ways that the Malawi 2020 programmes are closing the gap.

The challenges are large. Malawi is ranked 145 out of 188 on the 2015 UN Gender Inequality Index (GII)[1] and has the eighth highest child marriage rate in the world: A Malawian girl is 50 times more likely to be married before her 18th birthday than to enter university[2].

But there have already been some changes at the top level: 17% of parliamentary seats were held by women in 2016, an increase from 10% in 1990[3].

Despite the 1995 Malawi Constitution guaranteeing equal rights to men and women, as in many countries, gender disparities are still pervasive across all aspects of society.

So how does this play out in the tea industry?

Tea provides an interesting case study for women in Malawi. Approximately 65% of smallholder tea farmers are women, with the scale tipped in favour of landownership by women due to the matrilineal inheritance system in the tea growing regions of Malawi. While one might assume that landownership would lead to improved status in society, the reality is far more complex.

Gender equality is central to achieving the objectives of Malawi Tea 2020. Malawi Tea 2020 is a coalition of stakeholders from across the entire tea value chain which aims to create a competitive Malawian tea industry where workers earn a living wage and smallholders are thriving. The coalition is led by the Tea Association of Malawi (TAML), ETP, GIZ (German Development Agency), IDH (the Sustainable Trade Initiative), and Oxfam, and involves the entire Malawian tea industry.

The percentage of male and female workers on tea estates is closer to a 50-50 split, but management positions are predominantly held by men. Even in the smallholder trust associations, which represent tea farmers, women in senior positions are notable by their absence.

The Sukambizi Association Trust represents almost 10,000 smallholder tea farmers. General Manager, Austin Changazi, says that despite a very high proportion of female smallholder farmers, Sukambizi struggles to persuade women to either stand for leadership roles or support others to do so. “Even though women generally own the land, we still consider men to be the heads of the family. We have 70% representation of women as farmers, but if you go for elections to put people in leadership positions, you find more men than women. The women are actually voting for men to go into leadership positions.”

It is something the tea estates are also aware of and are seeking to improve as part of their commitment to Malawi Tea 2020. Eastern Produce Malawi Ltd (EPM), the largest tea company in Malawi, hired Gideon Mothisa as Group Human Resources Manager in 2014, the first such position in the Malawian tea sector. He is able to recite a list of new policies aimed at improving the workplace for women, "Women and children go hand in hand and EPM received a gold award for its women's empowerment programme. We provide breastfeeding centres on the estates for mothers and we have a women’s welfare committee consisting of female employees who meet to discuss issues related to their welfare. We are an equal opportunities employer and I’m very proud of that. Nearly half of our employees are women. We do not allow discrimination of any kind and we have zero tolerance policies on corruption, bribery, sexual harassment, slavery, and human trafficking.”

Yet there is still a large gap to fill between the representation of men and women in senior management roles at the estate, as Mr. Mothisa acknowledges. “At Eastern Produce Malawi Limited, we have several female senior production managers, Group Managers, Assistant General Managers, but we would like to see women in even more senior roles such as General Managers and Directors.”

Jennifer Likupha, Nursery Advisor, ETP

Until equality of education is reached, both government and the private sector will struggle to fill senior roles with women. If girls don’t complete higher level education, it is almost impossible for them to achieve equal levels in employment. Malawi has made great improvements in the number of girls in primary education and today 90% of girls and boys between the ages of 7-13 attend school. However, the attendance rate declines rapidly from age 14 to 24, and in this age group, males are much more likely to attend school than females[4].

Education is essential to achieve gender equity. Each additional year a girl stays in school is associated with a 10% increase in wages, increased life expectancy, and smaller families. According to USAID[5], out of every 100 girls who begin Standard 1 (first year primary) in Malawi, only about three will enter into secondary education. Of those three, only one will enter university.

There are specific interventions as part of Malawi Tea 2020 that can help address this disparity.

Farmer Field Schools, led by the Ethical Tea Partnership on behalf of Malawi Tea 2020, help smallholder farmers increase their yields and therefore their income through a year-long practical peer-to peer learning programme.

Jennifer Likupha, Nursery Advisor at Ethical Tea Partnership, says that most of the farmers enrolled on the programme are women. “It is exciting because most of the activities that take place are with women. Divorce rates are high in Malawi and many of the women we work with are divorced or widowed. The women are strong because they are used to carrying all the responsibility themselves.”

Ethical Tea Partnership research demonstrates that farmers enrolled in Farmer Field Schools achieve an average increase in yield of 18.5% in the high season, as well as significant increases in leaf quality which fetches higher prices. This increase can make the difference between being able to send a child to school or not.

Village Savings and Loan groups also help men and women to make small incremental savings and to access microfinance. This can be used to pay school fees or to set up a side business to boost income, particularly during the low season for tea.

Mavuto Kambochola Banda, Natural Resources Management and Village Savings and Loan Coordinator for Ethical Tea Partnership, has witnessed an additional positive impact of the savings scheme in the gender roles of families where the male is the main breadwinner.  “Some women told us that their ability to access small loans has improved their relationship with their husband. They are able to contribute to the household and engage each other as equals. When it is only the man working, the power balance in the household is not equal. The women have to look to the husband to provide everything and that can create tension. But with the Village Savings and Loan programme, women are also able to participate in providing income for their families so it is helping provide a conducive environment where the family is flourishing.”

Thwango Ndalama is Country Manager Malawi for The Ethical Tea Partnership. With her two degrees in sustainable development and agriculture, along with Jennifer Likupha she represents the small percentage of women who go to university in Malawi.  Thwango has a strong focus on ensuring that all aspects of the programme address the issues women face. “When we look at the welfare of the workforce, we ask, are women protected? What role are women playing? The Tea Association of Malawi has developed a new Gender and Sexual Harassment policy which has strong mechanisms in place to address issues.  On the tea estates, there has been work on implementing the new policies and around women and empowerment with committees formed on gender. This means that there is more hope for women in the tea industry.”

Thwango Ndalama, Malawi Country Manager, ETP

The SDGs are a crucial framework for our work. When it comes to human rights, some of the most critical issues we see relate to improving the situation for women by ensuring they can realise their rights. Coalitions like Malawi 2020 provide a vehicle that drives change for women at many different levels, which can lead to life changing improvements for them and their families.

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 All photos by Matt Writtle