'Improving Lives': How a 'people-centric' approach is transforming tea supply chains

The tea sector is the largest in India, employing three million workers - but for all the industry's economic benefits, environmental and social issues are rife on tea estates. Here, edie explores how big-name tea brands are adapting their supply chain approaches to change that.

Young women make up the majority of tea estate workers, but face challenges such as forced marriage and poor access to education and reproductive healthcare. Image: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos/Ethical Tea Partnership

Young women make up the majority of tea estate workers, but face challenges such as forced marriage and poor access to education and reproductive healthcare. Image: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos/Ethical Tea Partnership

If, like the members of edie’s editorial team, you live in the UK, chances are that a cup of tea (or several) is a key part of your daily routine. So beloved is the beverage by Brits, that we drink 60.2 billion cups every year – an average of 165 million every day.

But while the global tea industry has grown rapidly over the past few decades to become a huge part of the national economy in countries like China, Kenya and India, the infrastructure, practices and social norms that make up life on tea estates remain, in many regions, largely unchanged from colonial times.

In India’s largest tea-growing region, Assam, these challenges are pronounced. Of the workers employed throughout the region’s 750+ tea estates, almost half (47%) are estimated not to have access to potable water. Similarly, one-quarter have no access to reliable electricity, or to a flushable toilet.

Coupled with the fact that the globalised and dispersed nature of tea supply chains provide ample hiding space for human trafficking – and compounded by traditional societal norms in the region resulting in high levels of child labour and child marriage, even though the latter is illegal – these infrastructure challenges have left Assam’s tea supply chain unfit for the future.

Businesses are all too aware of these systemic issues. 

An evolving approach

Since 1997, a coalition of actors from across India’s tea sector, including Unilever, Bettys & Taylors and Tata Global Beverages (TGB), have been supporting in the Ethical Tea Partnership – a non-profit body on a mission to alleviate social and environmental challenges on tea estates. 

This mission was taken to the next level last summer, with Unicef's implementation of the Partnership's newest scheme. The charity, according to its head of children’s rights and business Charlotte Williams, came on board to help the partnership better tackle the “root causes” of key social issues faced by tea estates – rather than (as it did in the early days) their “symptoms”.

Crucial to doing this, Williams tells edie, is taking a “person-focused” approach which places workers at the centre of all considerations. To that end, the scheme is called "Improving Lives". 

Such an approach means that auditing is no longer enough and that a network of actors – from both within and outside of the business sphere – should constantly be ensuring good social and environmental conditions on tea estates in person. For Unicef, this network encompasses not only businesses but also the local and national government, healthcare providers and educators.

“Social compliance programmes have their place… but an audit is only ever really a snapshot in time, so won’t go too far in terms of addressing the real root causes of human rights challenges on tea estates,” Williams explains.

“Tackling an issue at the community level and right up in the policy space is crucial. What this programme tries to do is bring together all different stakeholders across the tea supply chain, from the producer level all the way into grocery retail – but also engage with other stakeholders from a policy level and a grassroots level to really understand the key drivers around issues like access to quality education or healthcare.”

On healthcare, for example, the Partnership has worked to connect estates directly with hospitals, pharmacies and first responders, in the absence of national policy making it mandatory for landowners to do so. It has also provided hundreds of female tea estate workers with education on pre-natal and post-natal health, with many also trained to deliver babies safely.

On education, it not only provides lessons on topics such as basic numeracy, literacy and finance to workers – but trains them to become educators themselves, boosting the local skills pool and preventing the need for continued intervention.

Mutually beneficial

After reaching 35,000 women and girls across Assam within its first year, “Improving Lives” is now striving to reach a quarter of a million people, either directly or indirectly, on an ongoing basis. Once it reaches this scale, it will cover more than one in four of Assam’s tea estates, making it the largest programme of its kind in the region.

To get there, the scheme will need support from partaking businesses at an unprecedented scale. Thankfully, TGB’s global head of sustainability Anurag Priyadarshi says, achieving buy-in for this roll-out won’t be a problem. 

“This is one programme where funding isn’t so much of a challenge, because, if I go and discuss it with anyone from our board or another corporate, they are always on-board - they find it an interesting, impactful and existential programme,” Priyadarshi says.

“Improving Lives” will help TGB meet its own pledge to positively impact one million people in tea communities by 2025, he explains, while ensuring that supply chain worker rights remain an “integral part of the business”, rather than a tick-box compliance exercise.

To date, it has helped TGB link more than 50 tea estates to medical first response units and created a platform for the firm to lobby local authorities, India’s national government and tea estate managers to improve water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and education.

These actions, among others, paved the way for TGB’s chief executive Ajoy Misra to meet Assam-based tea farmers in person for the first time – including women who had received formal teaching qualifications under the Partnership.

“[‘Improving Lives’] has transformed TGB’s supply chain structure and supplier practices,” Priyadarshi continues.

“This programme has put the girl at the centre of considerations and, with the help of Unicef, built important institutional arrangements such as child protection committees, estate management committees and mothers’ clubs. These bodies are all encircling her, protecting her and helping her to grow and develop. Beyond that circle, the impact is a concentric ripple effect, touching government departments, the legal system, the healthcare system and the education system.”

The road ahead

Of course, business ambition alone will not increase the number of people to benefit from “Improving Lives” more than sevenfold.

For this to happen, Unicef’s Williams explains, the scope of the issues covered will need to be expanded to include nutrition and mental health, while the demographic will need to expand to cover males as well as women and girls. And central to this, her colleague, programme specialist Margaret Banjo says, is a focus on children and young people.

“Working with the child from a whole life-cycle approach, which takes in all milestones from conception to adolescence, is vital because culture change does not happen overnight,” Banjo tells edie. “The values instilled in a community through an initiative like this will be passed on as time goes on.”

She explains that while women account for most tea estate workers and arguably are the most exposed to key systemic problems in their daily lives, support for them should extend to their male children. 

TGB’s Priyadarshi agrees, explaining that his visits to tea estates have seen young, female workers tell of how they “disseminate” information learned through the programme to their friends and family members in their free time – largely because extended family units often live together.

He additionally believes that the coming years will see “multi-directional” relationships forged through the Partnership strengthened – both those which cross sectors and those between direct competitors.

“When you’re approaching complex supply chains, I don’t think one partner can make a difference,” he concludes. “There clearly has to be several of us coming together and working in one direction to make change happen.”

While the programme has been specifically designed for the geographical and social challenges in Assam, Unicef’s Banjo and Williams both believe that it holds learnings for any company sourcing raw materials.

Indeed, many similar initiatives are taking place elsewhere in the tea industry. Supplier certification body trustea, for example, goes beyond "tick-box" exercises to collaborate directly with smallholder farmers, tea packers, estate managers and bought leaf factories. To date, it has covered more than 200 estates, many of which sell to brands such as TGB. 

Elsewhere, Twinings is using a Community Needs Assessment (TCNA) to evaluate human rights risks and improve working conditions in all tea estates in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It has also formed a multi-stakeholder coalition aiming to achieve a competitive Malawian tea sector where workers earn a living wage and smallholders earn a living income by 2020. 

For Williams, the two most replicable aspects of such schemes are starting at “field level” – assessing existing cultural norms and infrastructure before launching at scale – and taking a collaborative approach covering the entire value chain.

“Bringing together diverse stakeholders avoids the risk of a bilateral relationship between one charity and one business,” she elaborates. “Bringing actors together allows you to take a programme to scale, which is a key part of addressing systemic challenges.”

Sarah George



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