Greenpop Malawi tea project conserves soil, water and forests

Grace Susetyo
25 August 2018

NAIROBI (Landscape News) – Despite agriculture accounting for 70 percent of Africa’s annual loss of 2.8 million hectares of forests, the sector is important to engage in halting deforestation and restoring degraded land. Finding common ground to make agriculture work for reforestation and landscape restoration, though, will require systemic adaptation strategies engaging multiple stakeholders.

Greenpop, a Cape Town-based social enterprise that empowers environmental stewardship in southern Africa, will be presenting its Malawi Tea Landscapes Adaptation Project (TLAP). This project is known for its collaborative multi-stakeholder efforts to drive Malawi’s tea industry into an important partner for soil, water and forest conservation.

Employing over 50,000 people, tea is the largest formal sector employer in Malawi, Africa’s third-largest tea producer. As Malawi’s second-largest export, smallholders depend on tea as a cash crop hand-to-mouth. Mulanje and Thyolo—TLAP’s pilot districts—account for 90 percent of Malawi’s tea production.

Greenpop Head of Program Georgina Avlonitis, who will speak at the Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi next week, spoke with Landscape News about building the capacity of smallholder tea growers in adapting to projected environmental changes, and amplifying voices and capacity in influencing policymaking processes and decisions that affect their daily lives. Avlonitis said she hopes TLAP will attract investments for bigger landscape projects for more significant landscape restoration in Mulanje and Thyolo.

The project is a collaboration with Action for Environment & Sustainability and the Center for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA). It is funded by UTZ/Rainforest Alliance through the Sector Partnerships Program of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Q: How has the tea industry contributed to the degradation of Malawi’s natural landscapes?

A: Vast areas of land are continuing to be annexed throughout the world (for the mono-cultivation of tea). This entails deforestation, which negatively affects eco-systems and biodiversity. Herbicides, pesticides, and anorganic fertilizers add to the problem: soil degradation, erosion, and the alteration of natural hydrological cycles.

Smallholders in Malawi have issues with small landholding size per family. Since most of their arable land is used for tea growing, Smallholder tea growers encroach into forests, river buffer zones and wetlands in order to increase land for the production of other crops. Low productivity due to climate change and reduced income due to layoffs has caused smallholder tea growers to try diversifying their income by logging and selling charcoal for cash, hence further compounding the problem.

The tea industry is also one of Malawi’s top consumers of energy. Hydropower outages due to drought and erratic rainfalls force estates to use diesel generators, causing air pollution which further contributes towards climate change impacts.

Q: What are some challenges your team encounters in implementing TLAP, and how do you overcome them?

A: A key challenge facing the sector is climate change. Recently, smallholder tea growers have reported heat waves while working in the fields, as well as late and shorter rainy seasons, hence the crop budding much later than usual. Consequently, shorter harvesting time reduces the quantity of tea harvest and the potential income generated. Women-headed households face so many more challenges compared to other smallholder tea growers. In addition to enduring harsh weather conditions in their fields, women also perform household duties such as fetching firewood and water. Although tea sector jobs tend to pay above the Malawian national average, living standards for tea workers are still a challenge.

Q: What are some goals of TLAP in terms of the simultaneous transformation of Thyolo and Mulanje’s ecological landscapes and social-economic conditions?

A: This project is a pilot and cannot address the entire tea landscape in Thyolo and Mulanje. But goals relating to socio-economic and ecological transformation include mapping natural and social assets within the pilot SHGT community, strengthening the community’s capacity for gender-sensitive climate advocacy, enhancing the uptake of good agricultural practices and natural resources management, promoting alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping and crafting, and promoting agricultural diversification.

The creation of adaptation plans will inform the development of a strategy which will incorporate the advocacy issues identified by SHTG. Advocacy capacity building to develop the knowledge, confidence, and ability of SHTG to influence policy-making is also a major part of this work. In line with the Malawi Tea 2020 Revitalization Program, which was developed to address low wages and poor living conditions in the tea sector, UTZ/RA is implementing the Tea Sector Partnerships Program to work towards profitable smallholder sector, and energy and environmental sustainability.

Q: How replicable is this Malawi-based TLAP model in other tea producing countries?

A: We’re still learning and adapting as we go, but I think the overarching ‘recipe’ (of the TLAP methodology) is transferable. The project contexts and nuances would be different elsewhere, but many lessons can be shared. We’ve tried to build a relation-ship of trust and ensure smallholder communities feel empowered, connected and that they have a voice—especially women. This is instrumental in co-creating meaningful adaptation plans and targeted training/capacity building in order to assist smallholder farmers in sustainably managing their landscapes.