Rael and the other members of her crew, including her husband, have been hard at work since 6:30 a.m. here on Lipton's Kericho Tea Estate, which lies in the highlands west of the Great Rift Valley in the southwestern part of Kenya, about a half-day's drive from the capital, Nairobi. Each tea bush on the plantation is plucked about once every two weeks, a frequency that helps increase the total yield each year and ensures that this estate remains environmentally sustainable.
After the leaves are picked, they’re transported to another part of the plantation and loaded onto conveyor belts, exposed to air, chopped into small pieces and dried some more. It’s a time-consuming and labour-intensive process, but one in which "nothing is added or taken away," says Richard Fairburn, managing director of Unilever Tea Kenya, which owns the operation. Indeed, this tea estate is certified by the Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), a nongovernmental organization working in more than 70 countries to conserve biodiversity. The organization works with local farmers, foresters, tourism operators, workers, business leaders, NGOs, governments, scientists and communities to develop and implement standards that are environmentally and socially responsible, as well as economically viable.
Sustainable and ethical tea
Tea with the Rainforest Alliance certification is grown on farms where forests are protected, and soil, wildlife and water are conserved; workers are treated with respect, paid decent wages, properly equipped and given access to education and medical care. The seal also ensures that experienced inspectors have verified that the farms meet demanding environmental and social standards, and are on a path toward true sustainability.
By 2010, all Lipton Yellow Label tea bags sold in Europe will have the Rainforest Alliance’s stamp of approval. Unilever will extend that certification to all Lipton tea bags in Canada (and the rest of the world) by 2015.
Rael’s pay as a tea plucker on the Lipton plantation is about three times the national average of an agricultural worker in Kenya. While compensating workers fairly is inherent in the Rainforest Alliance certification requirements, many growers anticipate increased yields due to the sustainable land-use practices, and savings from the reduced use of water and other resources are passed on to the workers. Rael's job comes with other enviable perks, too. Another key aspect of Lipton's Rainforest Alliance certification is social responsibility, and this means that Rael, her husband and their four children are given free housing in a two-room home on the estate. As well, three of her children attend the Kericho HQ Primary School at no cost. The family also has free access to the estate’s two hospitals, four health centres, and community nursing and comprehensive HIV/AIDS programs. Antivirals are readily available for any worker or family member who needs them.
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These are literally life-saving benefits in a country where the average life expectancy is only 53 years (compared to Canada's 81) and the infant mortality rate is 80 per cent. Not surprisingly, malnutrition is common. In some parts of Kenya, one-quarter of the children are acutely malnourished, and an astounding nine out of 10 kids from poor households fail to complete their basic education. And while AIDS and HIV rates have fallen in recent years, the HIV prevalence in Kenya still hovers around five per cent. Public funds are severely stretched in Kenya, a country that has endured drought, deforestation and civil unrest in recent years. Lipton has a long tradition of caring for its workers. In 2006 the company was awarded the Global Business Coalition award for its commitment to fight HIV/AIDS in the workplace through education, prevention and treatment programs.
Fairburn explains that Unilever, which owns the Lipton brand, put a lot of effort into choosing whether to align the tea company with the long-established Fairtrade organization or the Rainforest Alliance. “In the end the Rainforest Alliance was the best fit,” he adds, pointing out that the criteria focus on how farms are managed and cover a range of worker issues, which include the right to a safe and clean working environment, dignified housing, access to drinkable water and medical care, free education for children, and the right to be paid at least the national minimum wage.
These rigorous standards also apply to the thousands of small tea plantations in Kenya and Tanzania that sell their leaves to Unilever. Simon and Esther Langat (no direct relation to Rael) own such a plantation on the outskirts of Kericho. Their tea farm of less than one hectare has increased its yield by an impressive 60 per cent over eight years, says Simon, simply because of the new, sustainable farming techniques they've embraced. And the plantation isn't the only thing that is thriving here. With the resulting increase in tea – and income – all of Simon and Esther’s kids can attend school, have a roof over their heads, and get medical care if necessary.
Simon is giving back some of the benefits he has reaped. With the help of Alliance advisers and staff from Lipton’s tea estate, he helps facilitate field schools where he teaches neighbouring tea growers how to improve their pruning, harvesting and other sustainable farming practices. These farmers have also been taught to use fewer chemicals and even trap pests in such a way so as to not damage the soil or tea bushes.
Back at the Lipton estate, Rael, who has plucked tea for 10 years, stands and surveys the rolling fields around her with optimism. The future bodes well, relatively speaking, for Rael and the other 16,000 employees on the estate – and for the 80,000 family members who depend on them. "I don't mind the hard work," she says. "The way we're working now means we produce more tea and it's good for the earth and the water. It is also good for my family."
When asked if she thinks her children will work in the tea fields one day, Rael doesn't hesitate to answer. "No. I want my children to get an education, to have a better future. My work here in the tea plantation is giving us that. We have hope. It will be good. Asante Sana!" Which in Kiswahili means, "Many thanks!"
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