Model tea estates to improve livelihoods of workers
Tea estates in Bangladesh came into being during the colonial times in 1848, and ever since, the production and consumption of tea has been an inseparable part of Bangladesh. Despite the many changes in the country, transitioning from colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent to eventually becoming a sovereign Bangladesh, the Bengali people’s fondness for tea has remained the same, but so have the lives of the tea labourers to a large extent. That is where the BRAC Tea Estates has positioned itself as an exception.
BRAC's tea estates started as a pilot project in 1999, evolving into an enterprise in 2003. Four tea estates in Chittagong were set up with the aim to serve as model estates that would improve the lives of the tea labourers with essential livelihood facilities such as for hygiene, health care, education etc., while producing tea to self-sustain and fund BRAC’s development programmes through this social enterprise.
BRAC owns a tea processing factory in each of the four estates. Both skilled and unskilled labourers are employed; the skilled labourers provide training for unskilled workers, resulting in greater production. In addition to the skilled labours who work as permanent staff and the management and administrative staff, there are currently 6,143 workers employed at the tea estates. The Tea Board, the Labourers’ Association, and the Tea Estate Owners’ Association make consensual decisions when it comes to ensuring basic rights, good working conditions and fair wages of the labourers.
BRAC’s assistance to the communities in the tea estates
Before BRAC’s intervention in the tea labourers’ communities, maternal and child mortality rates were very high and the literacy rate of community members was exceptionally low. After years of implementing BRAC’s development programmes, the rates have improved accordingly. Before the communities gained access to BRAC’s health programme, basic awareness on some crucial health issues such as sanitary hygiene were relatively low.
Initially, not a single private sanitary latrine was found in any of the communities of almost 7,000 people. Later a number of sustained behavioural change campaigns were conducted to promote positive behavioural changes regarding practices of hygiene, cleanliness, and safe drinking water. The initial tea estates health programme had a budget of BDT 10 million (USD 120,670), which after seeing positive results has now expanded to BDT 20.2 million (USD 243,750).
Innovation for environmental sustainability
There is little scope for innovation when it comes to tea estates. However, BRAC has managed to do so by introducing rubber plantations, medicinal plants, acacia and eucalyptus trees, neem plants and many other plants in the less productive areas, with a motivation to ensure the environmental stability and sustainability. For example, the roots of eucalyptus trees absorb extra water around them; which is why these trees are planted in the water logged sites to make them more utilisable in the future. Similarly, the introduction of rubber (for which prices are high in many countries, including Bangladesh) plantations provides a crucial income for BRAC Tea Estates, ensuring financial self-sustainability.
BRAC Tea Estates, a fast growing enterprise with a production of over 2,000 tonnes of tea in 2011 alone and making a profit of over BDT 700 million (USD 8.4 million), is looking forward to further increase the productivity of its tea estates in the near future for increased self-sustainability and higher wages for labourers.
The objectives of this enterprise have expanded considerably since its inception. In the near future, BRAC plans to increase the land that is used for production by plantations. The land used by BRAC Tea Estates is leased from the Government of Bangladesh, and at present, only a little more than a quarter of total leased land is used for production: although BRAC Tea Estates has 14,229 acres of land, only 4,423 acres are being cultivated for tea. However, there is a possibility that around 7,500-8,000 acres of land are going to be used for increased production in the near future. By 2016, it is expected that the plantations will completely cover the leased land, and hopefully after 2021, the production can be increased overall as well.
Currently selling tea to different brands for processing both in local and global market, BRAC plans to market the tea under its own brand name in the future.
At this point in time, 850 acres of land are being used for rubber plantation, which BRAC plans to expand to 1,000 acres of land. Rubber trees take almost seven years to grow and start producing rubber; hence as the plantations were initiated during 2008, full production of these is expected to be obtained by 2014-15.