Small Farmers, Big Change in South India (Part I)

The following post was written by Rink Dickinson, Co-founder and Co-President of Equal Exchange I am on a trip with my colleagues, Wells Neal, Deepak Khandelwal, and Phyllis...

The following post was written by Rink Dickinson, Co-founder and Co-President of Equal Exchange


I am on a trip with my colleagues, Wells Neal, Deepak Khandelwal, and Phyllis Robinson.  We have been visiting tea farmers and cashew farmers in South India.  This post focuses on what we have seen on the tea part of the trip and how it relates to the overall story of small farmers in tea: that is to say; authentic fair trade in tea.


Equal Exchange worked in tea in 1987 and 1988.  We had a great tea, which consumers were buying and which was turning a profit.  Nevertheless, we chose to end the program; concluding that there was no path to develop a real small farmer supply chain.  Ten years later, as a larger organization with more resources, we re-started the work of trying to reform the tea market to the benefit of small farmers.  This process has often been slow and Sisyphean-like.  At times, we and our partners have lost energy or faith that we could create a seat at the trade table for small tea farmers.

But the truth is that the coffee struggle was not easy either.  It took a solid ten years of hard work in coffee before we were able to see the beginning of what would eventually become a successful, powerful reform of the coffee market.  Here in Kerala, in South India, we can see some small but important steps taking place in the struggle to secure a seat at the table for small tea farmers.  These steps, in tandem with some positive developments in the US, are creating a mutually positive cycle in the important work of creating a small farmer tea supply chain that works for farmers and US and UK consumers.

A key problem for small farmers in tea is that the fair trade certification system deserted them twenty years ago. Fair trade coffee; even the multinational version; has meant at least some small farmer benefits.  This is because the robust supply chain of small farmer co-op (primarily Latin American) to Alternative Trade Organizations (ATO) that was painstakingly built over many years was simply handed to the certifiers for the benefit, not of the farmers, but rather, the importers and supermarkets.    Unlike the hard work that was done by farmers and ATOs in the coffee supply chain, no one had done the work of finding, organizing, financing, and buying from small tea farmers.  So these farmers were excluded from the “fair trade” model; rendering that model into a weak form of social responsibility posing as actual fair trade.

To this day, if you see a fair trade seal on a tea product you can be confident it does not come from small farmers who participate, have democratic rights, and are on any path to real empowerment, ie., having a seat at the table.

Despite this complete bastardization of “fair trade” by the certifiers, who find working with small farmers too risky, and who make terrible market decisions in the name of those farmers, authentic fair traders have not given up.  The certifiers have proven to be inept at reforming commodity trade beyond coffee.  They have not succeeded in creating impact and reform beyond the coffee model which they merely inherited.  They have, however, been successful in building northern bureaucracies and fiefdoms.


In 2010, Equal Exchange decided that our small farmer tea program had to be changed.  We took in-country packing out of the hands of our partners in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa.  This was a hard decision to make as it took money and control from the very partners we are set up to support.  But we concluded that without this move we had almost no chance to increase volume or to even be a decent trade partner.  So in the context of a challenged supply chain that only somewhat worked for farmers, ourselves, and our trade partners, such as Tea Promoters of India (TPI), we took value-added away from the global south, and brought it back to the U.S.

After 2011 and 2012, we were unable to prove that these changes were succeeding in strengthening the supply chain.  We believed that by having more industry standard packaging and greater control and flexibility, our sales would increase, thereby benefiting our tea trading partners.  Our sales did increase in this period but not as much as we expected.  This year, however, we have begun to see strong growth (40%) and believe the changes we made are finally working.  With great perseverance, we have seen our sales (and thus also our purchases) grow; which means we are more able to have the necessary volume to support systems in-country to allow small farmers to enter the tea trade in a direct and more equitable manner.

Deepak quenching his thirst upon our arrival in Kochi

Deepak quenching his thirst upon our arrival in Kochi

Rink Dickinson

Rink Dickinson

rink and phyllis

Part II, continued tomorrow.

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