Iriaini tea farmers adding value at the source
Charles Njuguna is one of 6,000 farmers in Othaya, Kenya, and a co-owner of the Iriaini Tea Factory. Every day he works from 7am till 4pm, tossing tea leaves in the basket strapped on his back. Charles is a small-scale holder working a plot of 0.5 acre. When his four children grow up, Charles says they will have to find their own way in life as his parcel is too small to divide and distribute.
"I have nothing to give them, apart from an education," he admits.
After a difficult year in 2012, when frost destroyed 30% of the harvest, 2013 has started well for the farmers in the Mount Kenya region. Bags of loose tea ready for auction in Mombasa are stacked high in the factory warehouse. Once sold, 98 per cent of the profit goes back to the farmers; the remainder is invested in the factory.
But the situation of the farmers can still be improved. After a whole day of picking, Charles earns just 150 KS (2 USD). He works six days per week. Though the Iriaini Tea Factory is 100% Fairtrade certified, they only sell a small percentage of their total harvest on Fairtrade terms, not enough to make a big impact on the lives of the farmers for now.
The power of education
Though Fairtrade Premiums delivered back to the farmers have been relatively low due to the low sales, the producers have put what they have to good use. Like Charles, many tea farmers put a priority on education and good schools. The group has invested their premium in upgrading the facilities of a local secondary school. With the investment, many children, who had to drop out after primary school, suddenly saw their future open up again.
Another project was upgrading toilet facilities at Iriaini’s primary school. Previously just five toilets were available for 200 pupils. Class time was reduced as the children had to wait in long lines to use the toilet. New, improved toilets funded with Fairtrade premiums changed that situation.
Premium funds have also been invested in business projects. A new leaf collection center was built, dramatically reducing the time farmers have to walk to drop off their crop. Iriaini also encouraged members to diversify their income. New initiatives include a beekeeping project; a fish pond; cultivation of passion fruit trees and tomatoes, and a rabbit breeding programme for meat production.
The next priority for members of the Iriaini Tea Factory is to invest more in environmental projects. The company is already known for developing cleaner energy sources with a recent pilot project using biomass as an alternative fuel for the factory.
Beyond the premium
But Fairtrade is more than the premium, says Board Chariman Githinji Hutchinson, ‘We benefit from the knowledge Fairtrade brings. It introduced us to the wider world. Fairtrade has given us that extra push.’
One clear example is a value added project with Marks & Spencer (M&S). The UK retailer, a big Fairtrade supporter, visited Iriaini in 2010 during a trip in Kenya to better understand the impact Fairtrade is having. During the trip, the seeds of a plan were planted and with financial support from DFID, M&S leased a packing machine for the Iriaini Tea Factory. Packaging was created, a group of Iriaini workers were trained, and now the farmers are packing their own tea.
By packing at the source, the farmers hope to strengthen their position and find new channels for improving their living conditions. Iriaini is ready for the next step. Not only is it supplying the UK market, it is now ready to sell their product locally on the Kenyan market.