SustainabiliTEA - Value in Partnership

5 July 2011
ITC News

A collaboration between the Rainforest Alliance, Unilever and the Kenya Tea Development Agency is changing the global tea industry.

In December 2009, for the first time, a group of 12,500 smallholder tea farmers achieved Rainforest Alliance certification through a public–private partnership (PPP) project between Unilever, the Rainforest Alliance and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).

The scale of the partnership has started a revolution in the tea industry in the same way that the coffee industry has been influenced by the sustainability movement of the past decade, particularly in light of the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s recommendations to support smallholders in emerging economies to meet the increased demands for world food production.

Unilever is the world’s biggest tea company and Kenya, the world’s largest tea exporter producing around 320,000 tonnes of tea annually, 60% per cent of which is produced by KTDA. The partnership, therefore, has the potential to change the global tea industry by setting the standard for sustainable farming practices. The initiative came as a result of Unilever’s 2007 commitment to source all the tea used in its Lipton tea bags globally from sustainably farmed Rainforest Alliance Certified™ tea plantations by 2015.

Unilever buys 12% of all black tea and sells the finished product in more than 100 countries, mainly through its brands which include Lipton and PG Tips. Within two years of launching the initiative, around 15% of Unilever’s tea now comes from certified farms, and already all Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea bags sold in Western Europe are fully sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. Lipton has also launched Rainforest Alliance Certified™ tea in the United States and Japan as well as in Australia, where a 12% growth in sales followed the launch.

For more than ten years Unilever developed its own approach to sustainable agriculture – the Sustainable Agriculture Programme. By choosing to work with the Rainforest Alliance, the company had a way to convert its work on its own estates into a movement across its entire supply chain and communicate that change to consumers globally. ‘We decided that the Rainforest Alliance certification was the most appropriate because of its comprehensive approach towards sustainable farm management covering social, economic and environmental aspects. This is in line with the way we have been managing our own programme for over a decade,’ said Michiel Leijnse, the Global Marketing Director for Lipton.

After starting with Unilever’s own estates in East Africa, the project is now beginning to work with some 200,000 independent smallholder tea farms in Kenya – and has also started working with estates and smallholders in southern Africa, India, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia and South America, all striving to become Rainforest Alliance Certified™.

‘By bringing Rainforest Alliance certification to its tea supply, Unilever has taken an unprecedented step that could eventually benefit millions of tea growers globally,’ said Tensie Whelan, President of the Rainforest Alliance.

All certified farms have to meet the strict standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) – a coalition of leading conservation groups – in order to earn the right to use the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal on their products. On their small, yet carefully managed plots of land, each of the farmers had to implement ecosystem, water and soil conservation practices and wildlife protection and agrochemical reduction processes. The standard guarantees workers’ rights and safety, and also decent housing, legal wages and contracts for workers.

Prior to the initiative with KTDA and Unilever, the Rainforest Alliance’s work in Kenya focused on large tea plantations. By developing an efficient yet rigorous group certification process, the organization has been able to reach a vast population of smallholder tea farmers.

‘This is the largest single group certified by our certification system. It is hugely significant for Kenya’s tea industry, as it means that these farmers will have greater market access, a healthier local environment and, in many cases, more productive land,’ said the Rainforest Alliance’s Manager for East Africa and South Asia, Marc Monsarrat.

Despite the size and uniqueness of this certification, the same strict and diligent process was used to ensure SAN certification standards were met through a combination of farmer field schools, intensive training and meticulous work to make the necessary changes for compliance.

One of the most challenging certification requirements was for the farmers to ensure they are properly protected when using agrochemicals on their farms, even if these are not applied to the tea. By setting up a microfinance institution called Greenland Fedha, KTDA was able to provide financing for farmers to acquire personal protective equipment at low interest rates. Greenland Fedha will continue to provide access to pre-finance to farmers for further farm investments.

KTDA brings together around 560,000 smallholders, each owning a small plot of tea, sometimes not more than one acre. KTDA’s Momul factory dries and processes the green leaf, supplied by the farmers, into black tea ready for export. As part of the Rainforest Alliance certification process, the factory set up areas to segregate the certified teas from non-certified teas. After drying and processing, the tea is shipped to Unilever’s processing plants for blending and packing into tea bags.

By the end of 2009, 69 tea factories and estates had been certified globally and, in Kenya alone, around 38,000 smallholder farms have achieved certification.

‘Certification has already brought benefits to the farmers by ensuring they are properly protected. In the future, we will also have the edge over other farmers in the market, as we are the first to obtain this certification,’ said Alfrick Sang, Field Services Coordinator at the Momul factory.

Other tea companies have followed Unilever’s lead. For example James Finlay’s tea estate in Kenya’s Kericho district was among the first tea plantations in the region to achieve certification, and the Rainforest Alliance is now working with both the Ethical Tea Partnership and individual tea companies to bring the benefits of sustainable farming methods to tea growers around the world.

Unilever is also involved in the tea improvement projects run by the Netherlands’ Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH). These projects aim to address bottlenecks in tea production which prevent tea smallholders from implementing sustainable practices. Resourced by IDH, the Rainforest Alliance, KTDA, Oxfam and Unilever, the project will result in certification of around 150,000 hectares of tea farms in India, Indonesia, Kenya, Rwanda and Sri Lanka before the end of 2013.

For more information visit Rainforest Alliance: www.rainforest-alliance.org, Unilever: www.unilever.com/sustainability/environment/agriculture/tea/, Ethical Tea Partnership: www.ethicalteapartnership.org.