A Reflection on My Journey with the Rainforest AllianceDecember 13, 2012
My journey with the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable agriculture program began in 2006 when I joined a small team in Kenya to kick start a three-year pilot project with Unilever (makers of Lipton Tea) and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA). Designed to demonstrate the value of sustainable agriculture to smallholders through Farmer Field Schools — a learner-centered participatory approach in which farmers learn by observation, experimentation and evaluation — the project was initially implemented in just four of KTDA’s 54 factories.
Introducing farmers to sustainability
At the time, when I explained the concept of ‘sustainability’ to farmers I said it referred to something that not only keeps getting better but also has no end. Now, as I reflect on my work with producers, I realize that sustainability is not just about what we have been able to achieve, but also where we’re set to go.
Interacting with farmers during training sessions is always the most memorable part of my work. These sessions have helped farmers to realize that they have the potential to make improvements in their livelihoods and the environment that benefit them, their families and neighbors as well as future generations.
Over the course of this project — which came to an end in 2008 — we saw a great deal of success on the ground. We were able to work with tea farmers to improve knowledge of good agricultural practices; improve relations within communities; and increase tea yields by an average of 5 to 15 percent. The pilot project left participants excited and inspired by the improvements they had achieved, and prepared us for more work on sustainable agriculture with smallholder farmers in the other tea growing regions.
A year after the project started, Unilever made the decision to partner with the Rainforest Alliance on a journey to have all of the teas they buy for their PG tips and Lipton tea brands sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms by 2015. Generally speaking, it’s easier for large scale tea companies to organize themselves and implement the Rainforest Alliance certification program (especially when compared with smallholder farmer groups). In Kenya, the groups around each factory are made up of about 10,000 farmers, each with an average tea plot of .5 acres (.2 hectares) growing alongside assorted crops – like maize and beans – and dairy cows.
Moving toward certification
For smallholder tea farmer groups in Kenya, the pilot project was a natural entry point into the Rainforest Alliance Certified program. These farmers were already familiar with Unilever’s vision of sustainable agriculture, which overlapped a great deal with the Rainforest Alliance program. Nonetheless, it was not easy for these farmers to achieve certification. There were major challenges around training, including the difficulty of introducing a large number of smallholders to certification requirements (which not only apply to the crop being considered for certification — in this case, tea — but to the whole farm). Farmers also found requirements for the safe handling of agrochemicals difficult to implement – though no chemicals are applied to farm tea in Kenya, many farmers use agrochemicals for other crops grown on their farms.
By the end of 2009, all four factories (Momul, Ngere, Nyansiongo and Mungania) representing a total of 38,000 farmers had overcome these challenges to become Rainforest Alliance Certified. It was a tremendous achievement and the beginning of a long sustainability journey for these producers.
Changing my path
In 2009, I transitioned from Unilever to the Rainforest Alliance. Though I felt a great deal of excitement and privilege on my first official day with the Rainforest Alliance, I hardly noticed the change as I continued promoting sustainable agriculture principles among smallholder farmers in collaboration with Unilever and the Kenya Tea Development Agency.
Because the pilot project was a great success, the Rainforest Alliance, Unilever and KTDA began scaling up the work in 2009*. Our main objective was to introduce the Farmer Field School methodology to all other KTDA factories and implement the Rainforest Alliance certification program in 20 chosen factories. The Rainforest Alliance took on the role of project manager and I was asked to lead this work.
The implementation of the scaling up phase started in 2010. Since then, it’s been successful beyond expectations, thanks largely to support from the Rainforest Alliance’s training partner in Kenya, Partner Africa.
Leading the way
The commitment made by Unilever to source tea from Rainforest Alliance Certified origins was followed by similar commitments from other major tea buyers including Tata Global Beverages for their Tetley brand, Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate for their Yorkshire Tea brand and Twinings for their Everyday brand. All of these market commitments stimulated an unprecedented demand for Rainforest Alliance Certified tea, ultimately leading to an ambitious program to help tea farms and groups in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, India, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Indonesia, China and other countries to become certified.
Expanding our focus
Although I have focused most of my training and support on smallholder tea farmer groups in Kenya, I have also worked with coffee farms and cooperative groups and one smallholder flower group. In addition, I was charged with rolling out the Rainforest Alliance’s tea program across East and South Africa, where I have found the ideas and lessons from the Kenyan model very useful.
By mid-2012, out of a total of 54 KTDA factory companies representing 560,000 farmers, 35 groups are certified, 12 are preparing for certification and the remaining 7 have just started certification preparations. We expect all 54 KTDA factory companies to be certified by the end of 2013. More than 30,000 smallholder farmers (outside the KTDA) are also implementing the Rainforest Alliance program in Kenya.
There are also ongoing programs with coffee extension companies like Ecom, Coffee Management Services and Tropical Farm Management to train several coffee cooperatives and farms. On the regional front, we have been working with more than 75,000 tea smallholders in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Burundi.
As I said at a recent dinner in Nairobi to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Rainforest Alliance, I have to pinch myself to believe how much we have achieved in three and a half years! These achievements have all been made possible with the support of the amazing and dedicated team from the Rainforest Alliance, Partner Africa, Unilever, the Ethical Tea Partnership and their buyer members, the KTDA and Africert.
*Our work on this project was co-funded by the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative and the Dutch Embassy in Kenya.