Certification Pressures

By Hannah Elliott

It’s been a busy week of shuttling between tea farms and factories and offices in Nairobi, meeting people who are all, in their own way, part of the infrastructure through which sustainable tea is discursively and materially produced.

My trips into tea-growing country in Central Kenya have taken me to several sites of production. One is a tea factory and associated plantation of approximately 300 hectares that is certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance. Tea growing here began on white settler farms but later, during the late colonial period, a consolidated tea plantation and factory were established by a British company. During the 1980s, the plantation and factory were bought by a large Kenyan investment holding company, at which point the factory and the estate transitioned to local ownership.   

After passing through several gates on the road that passes through the plantation and towards the factory and signing in to guest books administered by security guards, I meet with the factory’s extension manager, Geoffrey. Geoffrey is primarily responsible for ensuring that the numerous outgrower farmers that supply tea to the factory produce tea according to the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainability standards. While a proportion of the green leaf that this factory processes into black tea is grown on the factory’s associated plantation, a large majority (around 80%) is sourced from outgrower farmers who are registered with the factory. Getting all these outgrowers to comply with certified standards is, I come to learn this week, a particularly demanding task. People like Geoffrey must conduct numerous outreach visits and trainings in order to transmit knowledge about the Rainforest Alliance standard to their outgrowers. They must follow up with internal audits and monitoring exercises to test their compliance. During an external audit, outgrowers will be selected at random, and for the factory to be re-awarded with a Rainforest Alliance certificate it is imperative that they are seen to comply.

It is due to this risk that tea factories often transition to full certification somewhat cautiously. Factories I’m encountering in Central Kenya (all of which are Rainforest Alliance certified) began their journey to certification by partially certifying their product. Easy targets for certification tend to be perceived as large plantations or ‘estates’ that are either owned by the same company as the factory or which supply the factory as outgrowers. These large plantations are seen as easily certified since they have a clear management structure that can ensure compliance with the standard. With partial certification, the tea supplied by smaller outgrowers tends to remain uncertified, which means that factories must segregate certified and non-certified green leaf, process it separately and pack it in sacks that are clearly labelled either ‘RFA’ (Rainforest Alliance) or ‘Non-RFA’ (non-Rainforest Alliance) for sale at auction.

Segregating Rainforest Alliance-certified tea (RFA) from non-certified tea (Non-RFA) at the green leaf reception area of a factory. Hannah Elliott, 18 November 2018.

Now many factories are seeking full certification so that all of the tea they sell at the Mombasa auction is certified. But this is no small task, and involves a lot of work, in particular on the part of extension officers like Geoffrey. Whispers circulate about one factory’s failure in a recent audit: rumour has it that it was the outgrowers who let the factory down. Such rumours warn of the risks undertaken in factories’ efforts at becoming fully certified. If a factory fails an audit, it risks losing its Rainforest Alliance certification altogether, and its tea will be sold as a non-certified product at the tea auction in Mombasa.

Given the costs inherent in certification (producers must not only invest heavily in extension services via personnel such as Geoffrey but also finance audits themselves) and the risk of failing in an audit, what motivates factories to undertake the transition to full certification? As managers at one private factory explain, the market for certified tea is growing, in particular in Europe, which increases the pressure to certify. In 2007, Unilever, the third largest tea company in the world, announced that it would only source tea for its Lipton teabags sustainably by 2015 and for all its teas by 2020. The company specified that only tea certified by the non-profit organisation Rainforest Alliance would be considered ‘sustainable’. Since, other major tea companies supplying western tea markets have followed suit, declaring that they will only buy tea that is certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance. Producers are not financially incentivised to certify as such: Rainforest Alliance-certified tea is not sold at a premium, meaning that non-certified tea doesn’t necessarily fetch lower prices than certified tea at auction. Nevertheless, producers explain, with the growing demand for Rainforest Alliance-certified tea from large tea companies, in the near future non-certified tea may simply not sell at auction. One factory’s extension officer explained to me that factory managers fear what he called the bei ya jioni – literally ‘evening price’ – that non-certified tea may fetch. The ‘evening price’ is a low price that is eventually accepted ‘late in the day’ by the tea brokers who sell on behalf of the factory. Sacks of non-certified tea may hang around for weeks or even months in warehouses in Mombasa, thus forcing the factory to accept a poor price.

One emerging theme from Research Line A is thus the pressure that falls upon tea producers to certify, and in particular to certify with Rainforest Alliance. Over the coming days, I’ll be exploring the effects of this pressure: the work lives of extension officers like Geoffrey and the relationships between them and the outgrowers whose compliance with standards they must ensure. I’m also interested in the material effects of the pressure to certify, including the production of numerous forms of documentation which provide auditors with evidence of factories’, estates’ and outgrowers’ compliance with sustainability standards. The audit itself is another key area of enquiry. Indeed, it is at the moment of the audit that the pressure to certify reaches its climax: that factories are judged ‘compliant’ or ‘non-compliant’ and in the process are branded ‘sustainable’ or ‘unsustainable’.