HIV on the Tea Farms

Over the last decade, stories have surfaced about a growing epidemic on Kenya’s tea plantations – an increase in HIV at an alarming rate.

Tea pickers near Kericho, Kenya – by Ed Roberts

The plantations pay very little, and working on one can be a very difficult life. Mothers wanting to make money for their children find out quickly that there is no room in their small huts for their large families, and so they have to send the children away. Fathers move to the farm with their whole families as well, and watch them all leave when the payment from the plantation won’t cover the costs of having them on the estate.

In fact, wages from tea picking often can’t cover anything. Some farmers have trouble making enough money to pay for their own food. They have not seen their families in years, and they make too little to send home a dime for their children to attend school, learn a trade, or eat a good meal.

Caught in this viscous cycle, depression and desperation take over. The women correctly surmise that they could make supplemental income by selling their bodies to the men. The men, already devastated, spend the little they have on what could give them momentary escape from their situation.

And it is in this environment that HIV has developed a stronghold.

As the issue became more public, Unilever, the food company that owns Lipton and that grows a large part of Kenya’s tea, admitted it was a dangerous problem, but did not offer much of a solution.

Tea crop in Kenya – by Angela Sevin

But their efforts have recently changed. In the past few years Unilever has received awards for their HIV/AIDS program in Kenya that includes counseling, medical treatment, and education. They work with the communities to enlarge the program on a local level, and have seen some results.

Unilever has described their work as “an excellent example of…management and employees truly wanting to make a difference to people’s lives.”

But lest we look on this subject with naivety, it is useful to remember that the almighty dollar is always at work behind the scenes. In an interview with IRIN News, Unilever HIV program director Irene Cheruiyot gave a different reason for her company’s humanitarian work:

We realized that the company was losing tremendously due to high [HIV] prevalence amongst employees.

Most employees living with the virus cannot be productive because of the toll it takes on their lives. [If] they pick less tea it means the factory will have to operate at below optimum, so they will be forced to bring in more manpower, which leads to additional costs.

The economic implications of managing HIV are very high,” Cheruiyot said, “and the earlier large-scale growers and companies realize it, the better.”

Unilever deserves commendation for their excellent work in the area of HIV awareness, and it is probably important that they help other companies to understand the economic toll of having HIV prevalent on the tea farms.

But what a sad state of affairs when the tea pickers have become such a commodity that the life-altering and deadly destruction of a woman’s immune system, born out of selling sex in extreme poverty, is considered primarily an annoying hindrance to production costs of the cheapest tea in the West.

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2 Responses to “HIV on the Tea Farms”
  1. Joan says:

    This is an outstanding post! How else are people going to know about this stuff if you don’t tell them? I appreciate the information and thank you for your hard work.

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