Building happier families in the Rwandan tea industry
How UNICEF and the private sector are giving children the space to develop to their full potential
RULINDO, Rwanda - Everyone loves a hot cup of tea. Maybe some milk, a little honey. Perhaps you are bundled up on a chilly morning, soaking in the warmth of the exotic flavour.
But do you know the faces of those who bring tea to your cup?
In Rwanda, where tea is among the top cash exports, most tea plantation workers are young women.
Some of these young women are pregnant, breastfeeding, or are imminent mothers. But since the plantations are not safe for children, mothers cannot bring them to work to breastfeed or ensure they receive well-balanced meals.
UNICEF saw these gaps, and we made a commitment to fill them. Our inspiration first took shape in 2016 with SORWATHE Tea Company, keen on improving conditions for its workers and investing in early childhood. They built the preschools; we trained the teachers. SORWATHE provided space and materials for mobile crèches, where parents can leave their children while working. These crèches, overseen by UNICEF-trained caregivers, ensure children receive the nutrition, care, and safety they need while their parents are at work on the plantation.
Investing in children early is an opportunity of a lifetime. What better way to invest early than to start with the mothers and families who raise them? These investments could not wait, so we reached out to the National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB). Together, we put pen to paper and made a commitment to promote our shared values: improving the lives of children through improved working conditions for families.
The impact has been remarkable, heard loudest from the mothers themselves.
“We used to leave our children in the forest, since we could not bring them to the plantation,” Sophie Banyangariki told us, a mother of two young children. “They could have been hurt, or bitten by snakes. But now they are safe, and cared for well, and they are well-nourished because they receive porridge every day."
"I have peace of mind, and I am more productive. I can pick up to twenty kilogrammes of tea per day now, where before I could pick only five.”
Safe and healthy children mean happy and productive parents like Sophie. Productive parents like Angelique Uwayisaba and her husband mean higher salaries, and greater ability to care for their children.
“My salary has really increased,” said Angelique with a shy smile. Clasping her husband’s hand, she continued, “We have money now; it is not a problem.”
“Women are now coming to work happy and at ease. Where before they would work only seven or eight days a month, now they are working up to twenty,” said Rohith Peiris, Director General of SORWATHE.
But this is only the beginning. The Government of Rwanda takes children’s rights seriously, and so do we. We are combining our expertise with the Government’s commitment so we can reach more children and more families.
“We are excited to work with UNICEF,” said Sandrine Urujeni, Deputy CEO of NAEB. “With our oversight of the agricultural industry in Rwanda, and UNICEF’s expertise in advocating for children’s rights, we plan to reach more tea companies, and more agricultural sectors in the years to come.”
Businesses have an incredible potential to impact children’s lives. Their employees, their consumers, and their partners are the very families we are trying to reach. That is why this partnership is so important.
“With the growing awareness of corporate responsibility in Rwanda, this partnership with NAEB will be essential to integrate children’s rights into the agricultural sector. The tea industry is a great place to start, but we are only getting started. NAEB and UNICEF have recognised that together, we can do more.” said Ted Maly, UNICEF Rwanda Representative.
For us, tea is more than just leaves and hot water. It’s the smiles on the faces of families we meet, and the inspiration we take from our dedicated partners. It’s about every child’s right to protection, loving care, nutrition and early learning. We still have a lot of work to do, but along with NAEB, UNICEF is up to the challenge.