Collaboration in Sri Lanka is Driving Change in Tea Communities

Kristina Richens, The Republic of Tea and Susan Nisbet, Ethical Tea Partnership

The Republic of Tea (TRoT) has partnered with the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and the PALM Foundation to deliver the Women of Tea programme in Sri Lanka focused on nutrition, hygiene and financial literacy. The ambition of the programme is to improve the lives of thousands of women and their families in tea communities. In July 2018, Kristina Richens from The Republic of Tea and Susan Nisbet from the Ethical Tea Partnership visited the programme to see what progress has been made since it launched one year ago.

In the year since our first visit to Sri Lanka when the Women of Tea programme was launched, there have been positive changes to the lives of women in these tea communities. The programme is working with women on a range of issues that can make a real difference to their quality of life. This is important to The Republic of Tea because as the American tea drinker becomes more sophisticated and more aware of global commerce, they are becoming more interested in where their tea comes from. And as they ask more questions about where tea comes from and who grows it, learning about the hand harvesting and the labour that goes into it, it becomes more intriguing, more precious.

As the programme has developed over the last year, it has brought about changes in the daily lives of the women and brought together tea estate management and tea workers who are developing a strengthened and improved relationship. This collaboration has certainly been one of the greatest impacts of the programme so far and ensures the programme’s success, as better understanding from the management reinforces their deeper commitment to achieving the programme’s aims.

Whilst visiting the programme we had the pleasure of meeting amazing women whose lives had been transformed by new kitchen gardens which are being developed across the region and community kitchens that have also been launched and supported by the programme. These kitchens are the first of their kind to offer safe, nutritious meals to tea workers at a low cost. It is ’a wide-ranging initiative to improve women and children’s health through nutrition. Poor diets and malnutrition are a concern on tea estates with 35% of children under 5 on tea estates reported as being stunted. The educational programmes about healthy high protein diets provide the necessary teachings about improvements needed to their diets and the kitchen gardens encourage them to grow fresh fruits and vegetables which they then have easier access to.

A community kitchen on a tea estate in Sri Linka, which provides workers with nutritous lunches — Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos

And this element of the programme is another example of the amazing collaboration, as the estate management support the opening of these community kitchens. We were there the day one such community kitchen opened and at the end of the day we spoke to two of the women who were so surprised at the amount of money they had made in one day. And to see their pride on making 1000% more than they invested! They were really impressed, not just by the financial empowerment, but also by the wellbeing of their family and neighbours because they were providing nutritious food to the other workers.

Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos

It is examples like this that we have seen across the programme, that are showcasing how the lives of women are improving. Running financial management training has meant that many women are now able to budget and manage their household incomes and indeed increase their incomes through these kitchens. We are taking a holistic approach to the programme, ensuring that we work on all the factors that impact women’s lives such as the food education programmes, community kitchens, cooking demonstrations. We are joining this up with the health clinics and the financial management on the tea estates so that the women get consistent messages to increase and accelerate the improvements to their lives.

Women have access to financial management training on tea estates — Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos

Women now also have improved access to healthcare. We visited health clinics that not only ran educational programmes but also offered a wide variety of services. The express milk clinic was an example of yet more innovation, where mothers were able to express milk so that their babies could be fed whilst they were at work. We may start as simple as just giving them nutritional choices and mothers having their children be of a better birth weight but, that is pretty powerful.

We are working with communities on the ground and we have their direct involvement in the programme. Thibaragan, one of the programme staff in Sri Lanka who runs the programme, was born and brought up on a tea estate and has now returned to work on the programme which he knows will deliver real change to communities like his and more. The strong relationship that the community has with him is testament to the trust they place in him and adds so much more impact to the work that we can do through the programme.

We hoped we would have some impact on a good number of households, but now we expect 3,000 households to see the results in year one, with improvement to their health through improved nutrition. That is over 8,000 people who could talk about how it has changed their lives. Our overall goal when we started the programme was to improve the lives of 11,200 people across 5800 households. We are well on our way to achieving that.

One of the most enlightening parts of the trip was hearing the estate managers say how much they had learned about how to be more aware of the workers and what their needs are with regards to those three pillars and how they are inspired to take it further.

The programme has already been a positive step forward for many workers lives and we are optimistic about how much greater the impact will be in the future.