Thursday, 5 April 2012

“One Generation Plants a Tree – The Next Generation Enjoys the Shade”: Rainforest Alliance Certification in Uganda’s Tea Estates

Early morning in a Ugandan tea field

Farmers can choose among many different ways of certifying their crops. In the past, I have discussed well-known certifications, including Organic and Fair-trade, as well as less well-known ones, such as Certified Local Sustainable. One that I have not described is the Rainforest Alliance certification. To do so, I brought in an expert!

Denis Twinamatsiko
Our expert is Denis Twinamatsiko who is currently working with Rainforest Alliance certification programs in Uganda. To help me here, Denis has kindly answered some questions regarding this certification process in the Ugandan context (all quotations and photographs are Denis's). 

How and why did you get involved with Rainforest Alliance in Uganda?

Denis told me he became involved with Rainforest Alliance certification through his work with black tea crops in Uganda. His firm works with six tea estates (and over 400 smallholder farmers) along the legendary Rwenzori mountain ranges.

Denis explained that although his firm met multiple food safety and environmental standards, they chose Rainforest Alliance certification to improve overall sustainability in the tea estates.

“We have been re-energized by a recent report released by International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) titled “Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda’s Tea Growing Areas”, which revealed that climatic suitability of much of Uganda’s tea growing areas will decline significantly by 2050 and hence a wakeup call for everyone involved in the tea sector here in Uganda.”

Tea tasting 
What makes the Rainforest Alliance Certification different from other Certifications, such as Organic?

Denis explained that Rainforest Alliance considers economic, environmental, and social issues, whereas organic certifications strictly address environmental concerns. While organic certification prohibits the any use of agrochemicals, Rainforest Alliance allows farmers to use a limited amount of agrochemicals in a controlled manner. At the same time, Rainforest Alliance requires farmers to engage in ecosystem, water, and wildlife conservation, to create an agriculture-ecosystem continuum across landscape (for a list of all the requirements click here). In addition, Rainforest Alliance requires that farms provide fair wages and safe working conditions for their farmers. So, although the Rainforest Alliance certification may not be 100% organic, its farming standards take into account people and wildlife too.

Forest patch next to tea factory

In your experience, how has this certification brought positive change to farmers and farms in your region?

Rainforest Alliance certified crops appear to be a win-win situation for farmers and the environment. Denis shared that certified farmers maintain patches of natural forests within the tea estates. Keeping forests in the tea-landscape helps farmers lower agriculture costs because they become less reliant on fertilizers or pesticides and more reliant on natural ecosystem processes for crop-care. For example, forests are sources of natural predators (meaning they will need less chemical pesticides) and forests can help maintain soil health and prevent erosion. At the same time, when farmers keep forest patches within tea estates it is one form of conserving biodiversity. Tourists have recognized that Rainforest Alliance tea estates are important for biodiversity conservation, Denis shared, and they are visiting these estates to observe the fauna that can be found there!

Denis made another important point. When farms become certified, farmers start documentation of the process as a form of an internal control system; farmers can use these records to help predict long-term tea production patterns and this can benefit their business.

I was surprised to learn that Rainforest Alliance is not just important locally, but international tea buyers are showing a preference for Rainforest Alliance Certified Teas, and offering higher prices for them. Denis explained that “Lipton, one of the largest tea buyers in the world has committed to sourcing all of their tea from Rainforest Alliance Certified estates by 2015”.

Tea field next to forest patch

In light of the positive aspects of this certification, why aren’t all Ugandan tea estates becoming certified?

Denis mentioned that owners of tea estates can be reluctant to become certified because they would need to provide workers with fair wages. In Uganda, for example, there is no national minimum wage, and some farms may prefer to keep underpaying their workers.

Government support for environmental and social well-being is very important to gain wider acceptance of Rainforest Alliance, says Denis. He explained that without national standards people may be less willing to learn about or even adopt the sustainable practices. For example, Uganda does not have a national soil-conservation policy. Thus, many farmers prefer to burn a patch of land to clear it for agriculture rather than try some of the integrated soil management techniques proposed by Rainforest Alliance.

Denis’s work reminds us that even the simple things in life, such as tea drinking, have direct impacts on how the landscape looks, and, more importantly, how it will look in years to come. Denis said it best when he recalled the African proverb, “one generation plants a tree – the next generation enjoys the shade”.

Tea field


  1. Interesting to learn of this certification, previously I knew nothing about it. Considering the name of the certification (i.e., rainforest), I was surprised that some of the tea field pictures reminded me of monoculture agriculture, although there were some trees in the background. Certainly not what comes to mind when one mentions a "rainforest". It is another reminder that there are many trade-offs when deciding what food to purchase (or when selecting a certification for your crop), and there is no substitute for getting to know your food providers (and their farms) firsthand. Thanks Denis for sharing your expertise and your experience.

    1. Hi David, thanks for you input. It was interesting to learn that a Rainforest Alliance certification does not necesarily mean growing crops below rainforest cover but a way of farming in a matrix of existing ecosystems (to read more on this, here is a good link To my knowledge, it appears that Rainforest Alliance farms are thinking in terms of ecosystem services but at the same time assuring that even monoculture type farming adheres to ecosystem friendly practicces (e.g., Integrated pest management).

      It would be neat to hear from Denis as to whether black tea in Uganda is mostly grown in a monoculture or if there are other types of shade grown or agroforestry type tea systems.

    2. Hi David, thanks for your post. Tea is grown in a monoculture but under Rainforest Alliance certification we are conscious about high value ecosystems for example we can not drain a swamp so as to plant tea and we have to keep some forest trees along side tea plantations so as to enhance biodiversity. High value ecosystems are guarded jealously and under our long term improvement plan, we are working towards planting more indigenous trees on some of the areas!

    3. Thanks for the informative replies. Now I understand the emphasis of this certification. A focus on the ecosystem does seem to be a holistic way of viewing the effects of agricultural practices and perhaps is best for long-term sustainability. Thanks again!

    4. Dave, I am extremely happy that now you do understand this certification!


  2. Unilever, or Liptons has promised to source their tea from Raniforest Alliance certified farms where possible in the future. see:

    In the article: "Unilever participated in a public-private partnership to train smallholder farmers in sustainable tea cultivation through special field schools, working with the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), the UK's Department for International Development, Wageningen University in the Netherlands, development organisation ETC East Africa and the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya."

    A move away from the practices of slash and burn will go a long way to save some of the native forest..

    1. Hi Anon, thanks for sharing this trend for Kenya. With the amount of tea Lipton sells, I hope the move to Rainforest Alliance certified will help raise public awareness regarding more ecosystem friendly farming practices!

    2. Hello My neighbor from Kenya, thanks for the post. Here in Uganda we have been learning a lot from Kericho as far as tea growing is concerned and for sure the time is now to embrace sustainable agriculture.