Tea has significant commercial potential in Bangladesh. Sales are growing at an average of 14% every year, while production is growing at just 3%. It is also one of the few crops that can thrive in the sandy soils in the north of the country. However, prohibitive start-up costs and a lack of technical knowledge prevent smallholders from entering the market.
At the start of the project, all farmers were enabled to purchase tea saplings. This was done through grants, issued to each of the farmers, contributing to half the cost of the saplings. There were initially some challenges in the availability of the saplings, caused in part by larger tea estates buying nearly all the available stock from local nurseries.
This meant that not all the farmers (600, as opposed to 1,000) were able to start cultivating at once. However, by the beginning of the third year of the project, all farmers were underway with cultivating their own tea.
Training in cultivation techniques
One of the main obstacles to tea farming for poor farmers is being isolated and unable to connect with any of the necessary resources and know-how. By organising into 40 groups of around 25 farmers, they have been able to collectively forge relationships with bodies such as the Bangladesh Tea Board, from whom they have received training.
Representatives from each of the groups have received training in cultivation techniques, and gone on to share this training with the other members.
Not only has this helped the farmers to confidently tip, pluck and handle leaves - it has also improved their knowledge of adapting to seasonal conditions, protecting the tea plants, and maximising yields.
'We didn’t know how to grow tea plants. But after knowing the process we did it successfully. I learned all these things and was able to utilise this knowledge to change my family’s situation. Now we have two new tea gardens on two acres of land.
'We both work hard and take care of our gardens. If you will not give your best, you will not get the best. So we give our best. We feel very happy when we see a healthy garden and healthy new leaves.
'We are earning from both of the tea gardens. Every 40 days we earn 60,000 taka (approximately US$715 as of February 2019) by selling our tea leaves. I never thought I would be the owner of five cows and a grocery shop. I am raising hens and I even have pigeons. My family is now self-reliant for vegetables, milk, eggs and fish. My family’s nutritional needs are finally met.'
At the end of the third year of the project, tea yields were at an average of 6,700kg per acre. An initial target had been set for the end of the fourth year of 17,674kg per acre, so clearly this is not on track. This can be attributed to the delay in saplings with several the farmers.
However, among the farmers who were able to start growing from the beginning of the project, the average yield had nearly hit the end of project target, with an average of 16,564kg per acre.
It's also relatively early in the maturity of the tea bushes. Although they can be harvested after just one year, they typically give a maximum return in terms of yields after around five years – and the expectation from the project is that tea will eventually account for 70% of farmers’ incomes.
However, perhaps the more significant improvement has been in the overall income of households.
The increase in income can partly be attributed to tea. However, the income has also increased markedly in other areas, including other crops (which have improved in yields by 37% and against an end-of-project target of 40%) and livestock.
This can be accredited to another key component of the project...
Diversification of income sources
The groups of farmers were also connected with the Department of Agriculture Extension, who provided training on Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) for food crops. This involved the application of more modern farming techniques, improving the quality and quantity of crops, including soil gradation testing – and making necessary improvements to increase fertility.
It was decided from the outset that although the eventual aim is to increase the source of income to be primarily from tea, it’s important for there to be diversity of income sources, reducing the vulnerability if one of those sources fails.
From the survey at the end of the third year, the overall income from food and cash crops has increased. This is especially significant, given the reduced space available because of the tea cultivation.
In order to diversify their income, farmers are also commercially rearing livestock and poultry. Following further training from the Department for Livestock Services, quite a few are also venturing into small business and farming non-food crops, using their own resources.
This was especially important for those farmers who were not immediately able to get their saplings and start tea cultivation. Among these farmers, average income increased by 16%, achieved through the GAP training.
'Despite our experience, we knew nothing about modern cultivation. We had no idea how we could change our lives by cultivating more in our fields.
'My wife and I have always been working hard to feed our children. There were days when my daughter wanted to have some food and I was unable to feed her. The amount of work I had to do was impossible to describe. After the entire struggle working, we could not get enough food to eat twice a day. We had no idea what more we could do other than work harder.
'After several meetings (with Christian Aid partner Traidcraft) I received 2,235 plants and 2,500 taka (approximately US$30) from them three years ago.
'At an early stage of life, I realised how important knowledge was for people like me. Traidcraft gave us a lot of training on how to prepare the ground, how to take care of the field, how to use proper fertiliser, how to harvest the tea properly, how to connect with the factories and a lot more.
'We are simple people and so are our dreams. I repaired my house. I bought new land last year to increase my tea garden. I bought a motorcycle. We bought cows, and fish and ducks for our pond. Now I do not have to buy fish or meat from the bazaar. I have enough nutritious things for my family.'
In the past year, the project has also helped farmers to grow their own financial capacity, giving them the ability to do something which had not previously been possible – to save money. This has been done through something called the Group Savings and Investment Scheme (GSIS). Individuals from each of the groups were trained as overseers of the funds, helping to decide where the funds should be invested, for example in livestock, where farmers could profit from their produce. 25% of the GSIS fund is kept aside in a bank account to help in times of emergency where farmers’ sources of income are under threat.
Farmers are also incentivised to save through a matching grant of 20,000 taka (about US$240) which is provided when they reach the same level of savings.
After three years, the groups had saved a total of US$20,037. This was against a target of US$13,000.
The increase in income and the ability to save provides financial stability, which is also evidenced by a change in spending habits by the households of the tea farmers. Most notably, households are spending more on food and housing, as well as clothing and entertainment. These are signs that quality of life and independence is increasing as a result of the project.
The project has completed its third year and has good momentum – there is evidence that with the right support, poor farmers in northern Bangladesh can start to build their own businesses to help bring them out of poverty.
There is evidence that smallholder farmers are creating demand in the region as well – the number of tea factories in Panchagrah has increased from five to 13 over the course of the project.
However, in order for there to be a longer term change and for this impact to be realised at a larger scale, there needs to be a more fundamental shift in the working environment for small tea growers. There are inherent challenges in the way that the market is set up and regulated which make it difficult for small tea growers to take a share of the market. Most notably, there has been a lack of help with the initial investment required to start growing tea. To address these challenges requires policy intervention. Already, the fruits of Christian Aid’s advocacy work have been seen in Panchagargh, where the government have recently confirmed the provision of a 50% subsidy on the cost of saplings for smallholder farmers.
Christian Aid has been diverting some of the funds from the project towards advocating on behalf of small tea growers to the Bangladeshi ministry of commerce.
However, advocacy like this needs to happen on a larger scale in order to make an impact. As the project looks ahead to completion in March 2019, Traidcraft and Christian Aid are considering how the next phase of activity could incorporate this, so that thousands more men and women can take advantage of this significant opportunity.
NB: All statistics relating to tea yields, income and household spending are based on the end of year evaluation conducted by Traidcraft.