UTZ Certified, a Holland based commodity crop certification company, is making investments in the South African Rooibos Tea industry.
The organisation, which formed in 2002 and is active in 97 consumer countries and 31 producing countries is a private regulatory body that seeks to ‘build a better future’ for farmers, companies and consumers by inducting farms into the UTZ programme which focuses on skill development and support for cash crop farmers around the globe.
The UTZ certification is essentially an endorsement similar to the Fair Trade label, which communicates to consumers that the product they are consuming is grown on ‘sustainable’ farms that follow UTZ’s strict guidelines. By providing farmers with the skills and knowledge to manage their farms and business more sustainably, UTZ acts on improving the commodity foods supply chain significantly.
The company started as a result of a meeting between a Guatemalan coffee grower and a Dutch Coffee roaster who agreed that there was a need to empower farms to grow food more productively, efficiently and sustainably.
UTZ focuses on certification of Coffee, Cocoa and Tea and is dedicated to scaling up sustainable farming in these areas. Farmers that participate in the UTZ program are trained on locally specific mechanisms for farming more sustainably. Despite being focussed on farmers, UTZ’s offers much to producers and consumers too, giving piece of mind and traceability of products back to their original source.
The benefits for companies who invest in the UTZ approach including securing a consistent supply of quality produce for the future as well as reputational benefits related to investing in sustainable and beneficial farming practises at the beginning of the supply chain.
The World Wildlife Fund of South Africa (WWF SA) is partnering with UTZ in issuing in a Rooibos Tea certification program for South African farmers and farm cooperatives who farm the increasingly lucrative indigenous plant.
“In collaboration with the Right Rooibos initiative and other partners, our objective is to establish an internationally accepted, practical and credible standard for mainstream sustainable Rooibos production. By working together with local stakeholders to finalize this program, UTZ Certified can offer Rooibos buyers worldwide the opportunity to contribute to the sustainability and long term preservation of Rooibos farmers and their unique region.”
According to Tatjana Van Boorman of WWF, the reasons behind supporting a food growing certification program as South Africa and the world’s largest environmental organisation are chiefly around the threat to natural systems that the modern agricultural system entails. In South Africa, where only 13% of land is arable, and only 2% of that is particularly fertile, the improvement of farming practises that result in better land management are vital.
For local farmers, the UTZ program will hopefully offer better access to market, improved training, more competitive pricing and the ability to improve their product offering by providing certified UTZ produce.
During a conference focussed on UTZ’s latest programme that took place today, the 3rd of October, two farmers from very different backgrounds spoke about the benefits and challenges of UTZ’s certification programme.
According to a rooibos tea farmer from Ysterfontein, the decision to take on UTZ’s rigorous certification program was as much a personal choice echoing his agreements with the approach to social upliftment and environmental care as it was a practical choice to learn better techniques to improve productivity and remain competitive in a niche market.
However, Princewell, a small scale tea farmer from Malawi who is also a qualified UTZ trainer in the area and who was flown down to Cape Town to speak at today’s conference, was honest about the fact that althoughUTZ certainly assists farmers in growing crops more sustainably, small scale tea farmers in Malawi are still not without their challenges.
Chief concerns for Princewell included an abundance of illiterate farmers which made training difficult, a lack of access to farming schools, technology and transportation and, importantly, the fact that farmers are still subjected to the whims of international pricing decisions and are offered very little room to negotiate prices decided by production units further down the supply chain.
Whether or not UTZ’s certification program will truly uplift and empower the struggling rooibos tea farmers of the Karoo to improve their methods, earn more income and be generally more productive remains to be seen. It’s a complicated, localised and politicised market and the challenges of creating a sustainable, equitable and profitable rooibos tea market are significant.
UTZ certified products already available in South Africa include at least 50% of Woolworth’s chocolate, Bean There Coffee Co and more. Look out for the UTZ logo in stores to support UTZ certified products- They don’t cost more and are more than likely produce in a more responsible manner.
What do you think? Will certification make rooibos farming better for all, for the future?