From a crop grown in China for medicinal purposes 5,000 years ago to today’s billion-dollar industry, tea is appropriately steeped in history.

Fairtrade Tea LeavesMillions of people around the globe rely on it — whether it’s fuel to power them through the day or the means of earning an income.

The scale of the tea sector is vast — there are 80 million tea growers in China, while the crop provides a livelihood for around three million people in Kenya. An estimated one million permanent tea workers — and twice that number of seasonal laborers — can be found in India

While tea is mainly grown on big estates, it is also cultivated on little plots of farmland owned by smallholder farmers whose newly-picked green leaf is sold to estates or factories to be processed. In India, for example, the average smallholder tea farm is around three acres while that number goes up to 618 acres for a tea estate.

The main challenges faced by tea farmers in the smallholder tea sector are low and changing prices for their green leaf and the vulnerability in tea supply chains controlled by big companies. These issues are especially relevant in countries such as Sri Lanka and Kenya.

Extra support is needed by smallholder farmers to increase their quality and productivity in order to compete with usually cheaper estate-grown tea. For workers on tea estates, the many challenges include low wages and long hours, and a problematic relationship with the estate’s management who workers rely on for housing, access to water, health care and even their children’s education.

Smallholder farmer organizations and estates that meet Fairtrade Standards for hired labor can earn our certification for their Fairtrade tea. It is, however, the smallholder farmer organizations that need more support. While they own their land and are self-governed, plantations can usually sell their tea for less due to economies of scale.

The Fairtrade Minimum Price safeguards farmers in this unstable market as it is set to cover the average cost of growing tea and is origin-specific. The extra Fairtrade Premium — $0.23 per pound of black tea — enables farmers and workers to invest in business or community projects.

Since 2004, global sales of Fairtrade tea have seen a sixfold increase, reaching 13,400 tons in 2012-13.

In 2012-2013, more than $5 million in Premium was paid directly to small farmer organizations or workers’ organizations on Fairtrade tea estates. Small-scale Fairtrade tea farmer organizations invested 30% of their Premium in community, education and health projects and more than 46% in strengthening their organizations. On Fairtrade tea estates, workers invested 64% of the Premium in projects such as housing, education, medical care and loans.

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