'Green' tea from Unilever

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Farmers in Wangwangling, Anhui province, have been planting tea for hundreds of years. Traditionally, they endured a seven-month respite from productive work after the spring harvest.

However, since 2006, they can have also been bringing in the crop in summer and autumn, with a corresponding increase in financial returns.

The annual income per capita of local farmers was 1,392 yuan in 2006. It nearly doubled to 2,552 yuan in 2007 and hit 3,258 yuan in 2008.

The changes are attributed to Unilever's agriculture sustainable development program in Wangwangling, home to more than 400 rural households, and neighboring Huangshan Mountain, one of China's most important traditional tea-planting areas.

Unilever is the world's leading household consumer products manufacturer with 14 lines covering more than 400 brands. Its most famous brand in the tea industry is Lipton, the global No 1 in terms of sales. The company purchases around 15 percent of available raw tea from around the world.

"We are doing a trial in Wangwangling to not only help local farmers increase their incomes but also to promote our local sourcing, which is really a win-win situation," said Zeng Xiwen, vice-president of Unilever China.

The trial started in 2005. When Unilever looked to source tea from China, it found that farmers in the Huangshan Mountain area only harvested the leaves in spring and were effectively redundant for the rest of the year unless they became migrant workers.

However, spring-harvested tea is too tender and fresh for Lipton's tea bags, while the tea left to mature in summer and autumn is well-matched in terms of nutritional content and aroma.

The company set up a trial base in Wangwangling in 2006 and encouraged farmers to take care of their summer and autumn tea, which would be all bought by Unilever. Meanwhile it helped tea farmers to increase the quality and value of spring tea with new technology and specialist training.

It also taught farmers to cultivate potted traditional Chinese medicine and acquired a local pharmaceutical company to purchase the raw materials.

Unilever has invested tens of million of yuan in establishing the tea and traditional Chinese medicine research base and a processing plant. The plant has a production capacity of more than 100 million yuan every year. It can produce instant tea powder, tea-polyphenols slimming tea and theaflavin series healthcare products.

In addition to increasing the added value from raw tea, Unilever is trying to "turn waste into useful materials", according to Zeng. For example, Liya slimming tea, recently brought to market, is extracted from the old branches and leaves of tea trees.

According to Zeng, the program also aims to provide a trial ground for research into China's rural development policies. Since the beginning of the program, a study team comprising professors, PhD students and undergraduates at Fudan University was sent to Wangwangling. They visited every family and collected basic statistics, with regular follow-ups being carried out.

Five to 10 years will be spent on the sample study. Its findings will be handed to the Development Research Center of the State Council.

"We will further and deepen the program and integrate the farmers' increasing income and tea quality, protection of the environment and the ensuring of food safety into it," said Zeng. "We cannot do it by ourselves. We plan to introduce more big companies into the program based on our supply chain."

The global retailing giant Tesco has shown an interest in the program. The UK-based company signed an agreement with Unilever and Huangshan municipal government at the end of last year to conserve the biological environment and promote sustainable agriculture in the area.

The three partners will set up green agriculture bases, processing facilities and a logistics chain here and all products can directly go to Tesco's outlets. It is said the streamlined supply chain will greatly and efficiently reduce costs and increase farmers' profit margins.

According to Zhu Achun, a local supplier, Unilever's sourcing plan is long-term and stable, which he finds reassuring. "We have work to do the whole year and can earn more money and fewer villagers here will go out to be migrant workers," he said.

"As one of the first of the multinational companies to enter China, we have a long-term commission in the market. We hope to set up a sustainable development model here, with one important element of it ensuring local people have happy and harmonious lives," said Zeng.

The consumer products giant added a slogan to its logo in China - Where There Is a Home, Where There Is Unilever. "We stress the link between our company and our local consumers with the word home because Chinese people regard 'home' as the most warm and sacred word. Unilever is a member of China - the big home - and we have responsibility to make our home better, " said the vice-president.

Since entering China in 1986, UK-based Unilever has invested nearly $1 billion in the country and introduced more than 100 new technologies into the emerging market. Headquartered in Shanghai, the company set up one of its global research and development centers in the coastal city. It currently has more than 5,000 employees in China, creating around 20,000 jobs indirectly.

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