• Q|A Sandip Thapa

    Sandip Thapa, the founder of CuppaTrade, an eMarketplace that enables bulk growers to sell online, says the newly launched B2B eMarketplace exploits new-age tech, including AI and VR, to offer the expanding segment of small tea growers access to a diverse and global base of tea buyers.  not interested in maintaining the status quo, “the old way of doing business needs an overhaul,” he says, adding, “We want to blow up the market basically, and to bring in efficiency, make trade much faster, make it extremely dynamic and bring the sellers and buyers closer.”

    Listen to the Interview

    Cuppa Trade Founder Sandip Thapa on fixing the old way of doing business in tea.

    A Fresh Perspective

    Sandip Thapa started his career as a tea taster and auctioneer. He later spearheaded India’s first tea eMarketplace – the Jorhat Tea Centre, working with the Tea Board of India.

    Sandip Thapa, Founder CuppaTrade

    CuppaTrade is a newly launched B2B platform offering the expanding segment of small tea growers access to a diverse and global base of tea buyers. The platform exploits the new-age tech including AI (artificial intelligence) and AR (augmented reality) to connect tea producers across the world directly to buyers worldwide. It facilitates the sale of authentic GI tea to buyers, reducing cycle-time, ensuring quality, providing better renumeration to sellers and making procurement cost-effective for buyers.

    In this conversation with South Asia Correspondent Aravinda Anantharaman, Thapa describes a sales cycle that takes far too long, lacks transparency and favors large buyers. Stakeholders shows little interest in innovation. “The need of the hour is a fresh perspective,” he says.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: Congratulations on launching CuppaTrade. Will you tell us a little about it?

    Sandip Thapa: Thank you. CuppaTrade is an online marketplace catering to the tea ecosystem. We are focusing on the small tea growers’ cooperatives, the bought leaf factories, and the small producers. And we are increasing their buyer base. We are working on their market expansion, and we are going to the secondary and the tertiary buyers. We are connecting the small producers with a very large number of small buyers across the country. This is the plan in phase one, and in phase two we intend to open up for cross-border transactions as well, wherein we focus on the exports.

    We want to blow up the market basically, and to bring in efficiency, make trade much faster, make it extremely dynamic and bring the sellers and buyers closer.

    Aravinda: Looking at the Indian auction system, where did you feel there are gaps that needed to be plugged?

    Sandip: The entire process should have evolved. It is almost 180 years old and by this time everyone knows how tea is to be treated. So, the quality assessment is set, the pre-sale and the post-sale processes are set. What are the responsibilities of the seller? What are the responsibilities of the buyers? These are set and on the basis of these conventions, you see a lot of comfort in private sales. Wherein, the seller is sending samples directly from the garden; the seller is taking the onus of taking care of the quality and the buyer is taking the responsibility of timely payment or whatever the understanding is, with regards to paying prompts or credit terms.

    What we should have done is, in the auction system, we should have gone many years ago directly to ex-garden sales.

    Technology has yet to play a pivotal role in the ecosystem. So if it’s a broking house or an auction organizer, they could have come up with an app or platform wherein directly from the garden, the tea invoices for sale, could be uploaded and by the time it’s come to the warehouse, your kuchcha or the provisional catalog would be ready. They could have reduced the cycle time. And this is very easy. These are very common sense interventions. Nobody’s doing it, so we might as well do it through CuppaTrade.  

    Now, we have knowledge in the palm of our hands. Why can’t trade be that quick? You have the learnings of the marketplaces like, Amazon and Flipkart. Unfortunately the tea industry has been bereft of these innovations. You have pockets of innovation, but they’re very tiny. You have progressive sellers and buyers, that’s why you’ve seen the plethora of D2C brands coming in directly trying to sell from the gardens.

    So for us, the number one concern is the pace of transaction.

    Second is opening up of the market or the platform to add a very large number of buyers and sellers and to showcase small tea growers and producers because the kind of teas they are producing, although the volume is very small, has limited representation.

    Next you have to consider credit facility, with regards to receiving the material and making the payment, already set.

    It is a Tea Board run auction. The banks and fin-tech companies, could have easily opened up credit facility to the buyers or even to the sellers through the platform. That takes care of the working capital concern.

    CuppaTrade offers buyers four ways to complete a transaction.

    Finally, I feel it’s very restrictive in the sense that it’s not enough to have a tea board license if you are a buyer. Even if you have a license, you probably will not be able to operate out of any auction center if the committee doesn’t allow it.

    So the Buyers Committee is almost like a club. New buyers do get added in the auction system, but if you dig deeper, who are these new buyers? It’s the same old firms registering their new firm. So that is how the new buyers are coming in the platform. But it’s the same handful of 20, 30, 35 buyers. So these things should have evolved. Who should have anchored these? It could be the auction organizer, CTTA (Calcutta Tea Traders Association) or the GTAC, or STAC. It could be the Tea Board, it could be the brokers. But unfortunately, because the industry is so old, you have various interest groups and they run in their own direction. They have their own agenda, they have their own interests to fulfill, and that is how you see where the industry is at the moment.

    “The only segment that has made headway are the traders, packeteers, and merchant exporters. They buy low and sell high. That premium never returns to the small tea grower (STG) or producer (STP).”

    – Sandip Thapa

    Aravinda: In terms of price discovery and in setting prices, the auction offers the benchmark. How would CuppaTrade do that?

    Sandip: It’s very unfortunate because when you have a very limited set of buyers, price discovery will suffer. We respect the buyers version, because they also have their own interest to protect because they are looking for value. And with the commodity prices going up, it’s not just the tea price, you have other various costs which is going up, one has to control cost somewhere. Unfortunately, the producers are at a receiving end, where they don’t have much of a say.

    And you have to understand the buyers are mostly either traders or agents or packeteers in the auction system. So the procurement cost has to be low so that they make a larger margin. The platform has not been opened to the secondary or tertiary buyers, no one would want to go there and bring them onboard. Else, then what happens to the primary agents and buyers?

    We feel everyone can coexist. A small buyer can become a medium-large buyer. A large buyer can become a very large buyer because, when you look at the FMCG industry, everyone is going rural, everyone is going to tier-two, tier-three cities. Everyone is trying to get into just-in-time to fill the shelves, use technology so that inventory is just right and operational costs are down. Similar things could have happened, but when you have a very limited base, how would you expect a fair price discovery?

    Yes, you need discipline and you need to put systems in place. But why can’t teas be bought by international buyers at the same time? You have to have mechanisms in place. And it may not be suitable for all kinds of tea. That’s all right. But even on an experiment basis the platform should have been opened up. If it’s a very high quality tea, anyway it’s going to Europe, why can’t the importers be asked to be part of the platform. With a click, you would have expanded the market. And it would be all digital. You log in, explore the catalogue and you bid. How difficult can it be? And now we have working examples, it’s not that we are reinventing the wheel. It’s been many years that Amazon and Flipkart have been in our lives.

    If we don’t focus on an alternate, wherein we are speeding up the cycle time, we are reducing the inventory turn-around or providing easy credit in a transparent and open manner from the platform, then when?

    Even for that matter sampling. If you go to a buyer’s place, a fairly large or medium sized buyer, the amount of samples they get, it’s humanly not possible to taste all those teas. In many cases, they know what a garden or a particular mark is making. They know the flushes and they know the quality that would be coming out at any particular point in time. So it’s just the type samples they would see seriously at the start of the season or flush, and occasionally the usual sale samples, that’s about it. They do not have the bandwidth to see all samples, because they’re buying from auctions, they’re buying from private sale, they have 2, 3, 4 local brokers sitting outside the office with the samples pushing for sale.

    For certain category, you have to see the sample and then only purchase, definitely. Why not? But not for all categories. If you look at the BLF category or the variety that is mostly bought within a particular price range, that anyway is bought on the basis of touch and feel. No one would make the cups and taste. That category is increasing. So if you do something about it, digitize it or have a data set, that one can refer to, instead of just receiving sample, it would make things easier for both buyer and seller.

    Here also, CuppaTrade will be using a lot of tech like digital catalogue to make catalogues a bit more interesting and offer more than an Excel sheet; Augmented Reality so that buyers don’t have to go through physical samples. This will save them a lot of space and time. And with our quality assessment, it’s going to be very interesting. They will be able to buy teas on the go, even if they’re travelling or wherever they may be stationed. Once fully ready, we’ll showcase it and we’ll take feedback from the stakeholders. So far it’s been very, very encouraging.

    Aravinda: I would also think it addresses one of the concerns that producers have about how many samples they send. Small producers can’t afford to send so many samples in the hope that they get somebody to taste the tea and set a price for it.

    Sandip: Correct. So while we are building the AR module, we have already taken steps to get into focused sampling. The process begins right from registration. It’s very thorough. It’s a two step process, where initially, the buyer just uploads the basic details. Then the team sits with the buyer over a call and captures which grades do they buy, at what levels, what are their preferences and so on. And then we also push or showcase the teas that they’re not purchasing. And that is how we nudge them to try new varieties and steadily expand the market.

    You would be surprised and happy to know that while it’s been only about three months that we are active and live, we’ve handled teas from Arunachal, Nagaland, Himachal, Upper Assam and South India. And of all shapes and sizes. It could be a five kilo pack, it could be a two kilo pack, all are welcome; green tea, oolong, orthodox, tippy, non tippy, CTC, many varieties.

    When we discuss with buyers who mostly deal in CTC, Bolder Grades, Dust and so on and so forth, we ask them, if they would buy green tea as well, or would they be interested in Arunachal Orthodox or some other varieties? They usually say, “No, we do not deal in these teas.” Then we counter, “You haven’t dealt because you haven’t had a platform where you could be assured of a constant supply. Here is your chance, we are showcasing these variety and sending you a few samples.” We encourage them to test it out with their clients, and tell them that now they have a seasoned partner in CuppaTrade who can offer a smooth supply. So this is how we are expanding or helping the small producers expand the market.

    Aravinda: The traditional auction system, especially with the mix of commodity and CTC and Orthodox (ODX) has a very complicated grading system that is very intimidating for any new buyer. Unless they already have a sense of all these finer differences between grades.

    Sandip: It’s a very interesting point. We have a plethora of grades and most are not required. We had discussed this with Tea Board earlier. Everyone agrees that we need to reduce the numbers and have only the standard ones like you find in Sri Lanka. But here comes the problem, when you say, a particular grade, let’s say a BOP or a BP, it varies between garden to garden because of the sizing of the grains. And that happens because of quality of mesh in sifters, as it varies between manufacturers. You’d be happy to note that during our quality assessment, we are pointing out the mesh size for each invoice.

    This is a foundational work that we have started wherein we are providing as many data points as possible for the comfort of buyers. We are laying this foundation so that slowly, we may do away with the samples altogether. This may sound impossible now, but with technology, this is possible.

    We realized early, that after a point, when we have lakhs of buyers in the platform, it’ll not be possible for us to send out samples even if we do focused sampling.

    It’s a process. Sellers realize it. Buyers also realize that there are too many grades in the market. We need to reduce it. We are talking to Associations too, because it reduces cost for the seller as it helps in streamlining packaging, and is less confusing for buyers.

    Aravinda: With the small tea farmer and the bought leaf factory how do you ensure, because the volumes are so small how do you ensure there’s a sufficient supply of a particular tea, a particular grade, which has already found a buyer and who’d like a, the assurance of a steady, consistent supply

    Sandip: For stabilizing the supply chain for a buyer with a particular set of variety, we have a mechanism for requirement matching. We use AI to educate the platform that for a particular buyer, a certain category of tea is suitable. Thus, after a point, when we have enough data, the platform will give us and the buyer suitable recommendation basis her buying history. Then, we shall position the new marks accordingly. This way we are trying to bring some semblance and ensure that the buyers have the required supply.

    Aravinda: And I think there’s also the opportunity to take back market insights to producers, or to the factories, to the small tea growers, and say, okay, I have an estimate of how much tea of a certain grade, of a certain kind at a certain price band in demand and sort of establish those sort of conversations also

    Sandip: Yes, this is what the market is demanding and perhaps they could tweak manufacturing to stay relevant and take advantage of the prevailing market. We want to rely on data and market feedback for this. We are earnest in developing a robust database and analytics to improve all-round offerings.

    The other thing with small growers is that, they are defined by one segment, but within that segment itself, there’s such a huge range, isn’t it? There are those who are producing these uber specialty and extremely fine quality tea, and there are those who are still starting out and figuring out a way around making tea. So how do you then navigate this spectrum of small tea growers?

    We have already faced this kind of a dilemma because you have certain bought-leaf factories who are working very closely with smart growers and they’re putting in 70% to 80% fine leaf in manufacturing. But the moment the buyer hears it’s a bought leaf factory, the perception gets colored. It’s a constant education process with them. And we insist that they shouldn’t judge either by the mark or where it’s coming from. They should assess and pay only basis the quality.

    It’s a process because the perception of BLF is very strong. It’s a volume game for BLF producers with less regard to quality. But when you come across exceptions, you’ve got to fight for them.

    Here, we have an advantage because the buyer set is very large and it’s increasing every day. So I think from the traditional platform point of view, when they are selling through CuppaTrade, the biggest advantage is the market base. There is somebody who’s working hard towards positioning them, and we do get into a bit of confrontation with buyers, and urge them to stick to apple to apple comparison on quality because we know what we have, we know the producers, the team and advisors have gone to the factory, we click pictures, we make videos, and we know some of them are very disciplined producers and the result is in the cup. When you taste you know immediately that these have been manufactured with very finely plucked leaves and they’re different. Some of the invoices are even better than many agency gardens, I must say.

    It’s a constant positioning that we have to do. And that is how you set the mark, because it’s not just the seller who’s saying that her tea is good, but the platform too, which is supposed to be unbiased. And because we have a large buyer base, it becomes somewhat easier for us to represent those kind of teas.

    Aravinda: CuppaTrade is not just a trading platform, it’s also supports a community where conversations can happen, insights can flow from one to the other. And you facilitate, that direct dialogue.

    Sandip: We are not traditional brokers. We are not traders. We don’t want to keep a margin. We are very clear on that. Whatever benefit or the higher price that the seller gets, which the buyer is providing, it has to go directly to the seller. We have a service fee. We charge the sellers, we charge the buyers, but that’s about it. We are pure facilitators providing a platform where everyone is welcome to interact, negotiate in a secure, safe environment, while we take care of quality and payments.

    Aravinda: So what is the volume you need of buyers and sellers to make CuppaTrade viable and breakeven?

    Sandip: We’re going for all. We’re going for everybody. And it’s because India itself is a very, very large market. If you look at the figures, I think the timing of CuppaTrade is apt.

    If you look at the auction versus private sale data, auctions are usually around 45% annually. And there is a constant shift towards private sale. We anticipate that this shift will keep increasing. Within a couple of years it will be a stark 40-60 in favor of private sale. CuppaTrade operates in the private space and we don’t conduct auctions. It’s a marketplace, where buyers and sellers negotiate directly and finalize the price and quantity.

    As far as buyers are concerned, internally we have taken a target to have about over a lakh (100,000) of buyers across the country. At the moment, we are somewhere near 500 buyers, and we have not even stepped up because, it’s end season in North India. We are focusing on South Indian producers right now. By late February or early March, we shall go all-out and hasten the onboarding process. It’ll be pedal to the metal, so to say.

    We want to go to the hinterlands. We want to go to the destinations, hold buyer-seller meets, do the legwork, also to make the onboarding process as smooth and easy, help them understand our processes, our quality assessment, show the AR version of the sample, gauge their comfort level and tweak accordingly. Again, it’s a process and it’ll take some time and as you know the industry is averse to innovation and tech, we anticipate it’s going to be a long haul. But yes, for us, the figure is over a lakh of buyers on the platform.

    Aravinda: How difficult is it to conduct transactions on CuppaTrade? What are buyers and sellers required to do to join the platform?

    Sandip: It’s very easy. You go to the website CuppaTrade.com and click Marketplace. You identify whether you are a seller, buyer, or both. And the registration form opens up. Many requirements are not mandatory. It’s left to the seller and buyer. That is the first step of registration. Then the team calls and we get into the detailing bit. So it’s that easy and it’s completely free. We don’t pay to be members of Amazon or buy from Flipkart. So that’s the model.

    Aravinda: And it comes directly the product itself, eventually comes directly from the producer’s side, the seller’s side?

    Sandip: Yes, fresh and in the shortest possible time. We’re removing many layers of traders or intermediaries. In most cases, it’ll be between seller to destination buyer. For certain categories it could be the intermediaries who would be feeding the destination. We are not averse to, agents or traders being in the platform because we are focusing on the ecosystem. Where we bring advantage for both seller and buyer is better remuneration, a large variety in the shortest possible time on a one-stop shop platform with tech driven value-adds. There’ll be many segments of buyers who will be very interested in the platform.

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  • Tea Producers Urged to Share Insights on Human Rights

    THIRST has completed its initial Human Rights Impact Assessment in the global tea sector and is now seeking to understand the root causes. Founder and CEO Sabita Banerji says that, “the voices of producers are, in fact, quite rarely heard. They are often blamed for circumstances beyond their control. We just want to understand how it all works, where the levers for change may be, how the current situation might be driving some of the undeniable problems in the tea sector, and what could be done to address those problems.”

    Producers: Tell your side of the story. Fill out this form to receive a link to the Global Tea Producers Survey before January 31, 2023.

    Listen to the Interview

    Sabita Banerji on THIRST’s Human Rights Impact Assessment
    Since the inception of the tea industry criticism for low pay and poor living and working conditions for tea workers has been directed primarily at owners.  Historically, there were undeniably bad practices – many tea producers have since improved conditions on their estates and enjoy good relations with their workforce, complying with local laws and regulations.

    Tea Producers Get An Opportunity to Tell their Side of the Story

    Sabita Banerji was born and raised on tea plantations in Kerala and Assam. She has spent nearly 20 years working in ethical trade and international development, holding strategic posts at Oxfam and the Ethical Trading Initiative. Sabita was previously a member of the Board of Directors of Just Change, UK – a voluntary community tea trading initiative. 

    She co-founded THIRST, The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea. THIRST launched its Human Rights Impact Assessment of the global tea sector last year. Planned as a three-year study, Phase 1 of the literature review has ended, and Phase 2 is set to begin.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: I am eager to hear how the study has progressed so far. First, do you want to debunk some preconceptions about this survey, especially as you have just launched the producer’s survey? Because human rights is a touchy subject and you have often emphasized that THIRST wants to work collaboratively with producers.

    Sabita Banerji: You’re right, human rights are a touchy subject. But perhaps if we just think about tea workers and farmers as people like ourselves, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, people who just want to live a decent life, who want to have a house that is safe and waterproof in the monsoon and who can afford to educate their children to a decent standard, and who can maybe have some savings so that if a member of the family falls sick they can get medical attention for them. If we think of it that way, then there’s nothing touchy about that. These are things we all want for ourselves; we all want for anybody that we work with. And I’m sure everybody in the tea value chain wants that for tea workers and farmers if possible.

    Sabita Banerji

    However, we are working in a system established 200 years ago. And it was established with a certain structure, most of which persists today, and it was established at a time when there were very different moral standards regarding how workers should be treated. And so, we need to look at that, too. We live in an age of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. There will soon be legislation from the European Union on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. There are growing demands from customers, investors, and potential employers for companies to demonstrate that everybody working in their supply chain has a life that meets those decent standards. And so, I think that’s the way to look at this issue and not worry too much about the phrase “human rights.”

    The two preconceptions I’d like to debunk with this phase of the Human Rights Impact Assessment are the preconception that civil society is somehow out to attack the tea industry and wants to destroy it. The opposite is true. NGOs (non-government organization) and civil society organizations, as much as the tea industry itself, wants the industry to survive. We want it to thrive. We want everybody within a thriving industry to be treated fairly and have a decent life. So that’s the first preconception I want to debunk.

    The second one is that tea producers are solely responsible for the conditions in which tea workers and farmers live. They are part of a wider system. In fact, most of the profit of the margin from the sale of tea is concentrated at the packing and retail end of the value chain. So, we shouldn’t be looking solely at producers to try to solve these problems. We should be looking at the whole value chain and trying to discover what everybody within the value chain can do to make life better for tea workers and farmers.

    If we were to use the language of human rights, it’s their right to have a decent life. But it’s also beneficial to the industry. There is a business imperative for ensuring that workers are not so unhappy that they are desperate for their children to get out of tea production. And so, just in terms of retention, productivity, and reputation of the tea industry as whole or individual companies, it is important for tea workers to say we have a decent life and for tea farmers to have a decent income.

    Aravinda: Was there anything that came up from the literature review that you were surprised by? Also, where were the gaps in the available literature on the tea sector? 

    Sabita: The two biggest areas where we found gaps in the information were, first, information from East and Southeast Asia. There is much literature out, you know, and a disproportionate amount of literature about Assam and less so, but still quite a lot from Kenya and Malawi. But very little in other areas. And even in other East African countries like Tanzania, many of the resources we found were quite dated. But from countries from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., which are very big, major tea-growing countries, there needs to be more literature on what life is like for workers, tea workers, and farmers there. So that’s a gap that we hope will be filled. I have to say that since we were looking at available English resources, there are likely other resources out there, although we have tried to trace those and have not found any more information as far as we know. If anyone reading this knows of resources, reports, and documentation of situations for tea workers and farmers in those areas, I’d be very pleased to hear from them.

    The second area where we found that there needed to be more information was about smallholder tea farmers. Because as you know, there is a huge surge in small tea farmers establishing themselves. And in fact, more than 60% of tea globally is now grown by small-scale tea farmers. I just read the news today that APJ (Apeejay Tea Group, the third largest tea company in India) is pulling out of the tea sector in India. Recently, Warren Teas also pulled out of its tea estates in Assam. It looks like the plantation sector is weakening, and the small tea growers’ sector is growing. And therefore, it’s important that we start to document and research, you know, what is happening to the workers and the farmers and their families? Because if there were problems in estates, and I think this is something that estate managers and owners have been telling us for years that yes, they may not have the ideal perfect conditions, but workers have some protection workers on tea estates. In contrast, small-scale farmers are dispersed across huge areas, there is no organization between them, it’s very hard to monitor. It would be very hard for retailers and brands to monitor what is happening within those farms, whether the human rights of everybody within those farms are being met. And so, this is an area where we need to see more documentation of those issues.

    Aravinda: Where were the gaps in the available literature on the tea sector? 

    Sabita: The two biggest areas where we found gaps in the information were, first, information from East and Southeast Asia. There is much literature out, you know, and a disproportionate amount of literature about Assam and less so, but still quite a lot from Kenya and Malawi. But very little in other areas. And even in other East African countries like Tanzania, many of the resources we found were quite dated. But from countries from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., which are very big, major tea-growing countries, there needs to be more literature on what life is like for workers, tea workers, and farmers there. So that’s a gap that we hope will be filled. I have to say that, you know, we were looking at available English resources. So it may be that there are other resources out there, although we have tried to trace those and have not found any more information as far as we know. So, if anyone listening to this knows of resources, reports, and documentation of situations for tea workers and farmers in those areas, I’d be very pleased to hear from them.

    The second area where we found that there needed to be more information was about smallholder tea farmers. Because as you know, I’ve been that there is a huge surge in small tea farmers. And in fact, more than 50% of tea globally is now grown by small-scale tea farmers. And I just read the news today that APJ is pulling out of the tea sector in India. Recently, Warren Teas also pulled out of their tea estates in Assam, and the plantation sector is weakening. And the small tea growers’ sector is growing. And therefore, it’s important that we start to document and research, you know, what is happening to the workers and the farmers and their families? Because if there were problems in estates, and I think this is something that estate managers and owners have been telling us for years that yes, they may not have the ideal perfect conditions, but they have some protection workers on tea estates. And but small-scale farmers, they are, you know, dispersed across huge areas, there is no organization between them, it’s very hard to monitor, it would be very hard for retailers and brands to monitor what is happening within those farms, whether the human rights of everybody within those farms are being met. And so, this is an area where we need to see more documentation of those issues.

    Aravinda: The second phase of survey and interviews is a key phrase, isn’t it, of surveys with producers and interviews with industry stakeholders, particularly workers. What is the expectation of this phase? 

    Sabita: The second phase is really key. This is the analysis phase. The first phase was assessment, where we documented both how the industry works, what standards are in place, the human rights in principle and in practice. The second phase is analysis, which is the phase we’re in now. The third phase will be action planning, where we bring together international multi stakeholder players to discuss what should be done. And the fourth phase will be accountability, where we try to support the tea industry to monitor those action plans and how effective they are, whether they need adjustment, etc.

    So, this is a key phase, this analysis phase. This phase will consist of three things, a producer’s survey, key informant interviews with a wide range of people throughout the tea sector and technical experts in things like international trade, gender, the tea industry as a whole. And the third element will be looking at alternative approaches, you know, what have different players been trying around the world to improve working conditions for workers or how tea is traded, and so starting to put out some potential solutions. But the most important one of those three, I think, is this producer survey. Because producers’ voices are in fact quite rarely heard. People worry that the voice of workers is not heard. And that is a legitimate worry. But there have been this huge number of reports, many NGOs and trade unions and academics, interviewing workers, finding out their position and their point of view and their lived experience. And obviously, brands and retailers are usually happy to speak out. But for producers, it’s harder because firstly, they are often directly blamed for the condition of workers on their estates. And secondly, they are just part of a wider value chain or wider supply chain. They have little control over the prices that are paid for the tea that their workers produce. And they are also under pressure with increasing costs and increasing climate impacts. Which makes it really difficult to run these estates, as perhaps we’ve seen from some of these companies pulling out and a lot of estates closing, leaving workers in a really vulnerable position. So we need to hear the voice of tea producers. We need tea producers to be able to say what pressures they’re under and what would help them to try and address some of these problems. And they need to be able to do this in confidence, anonymously so that there is no commercial risk to them in speaking out in case some of their answers may seem critical of their customers.

    And you know, the principle that THIRST works on is that we’re not about blaming any player within the within the tea value chain. We’re not blaming producers for how they treat their workers. We’re not blaming brands and retailers for how they do their purchasing practices. But we just want to understand, we want to understand how it all works, where the levers for change may be, how the current situation might be driving some of the problems that are undeniably there in the tea sector, and what could be done by those players to address those problems.

    Aravinda: And, as you said, there’s little available literature on small tea growers. Given the changing models, how will you approach Phase 2 given the differences in how large estates, small tea growers, bought-leaf factories, etc., operate?

    Sabita: Yes, you’re right. The tea sector is very complex, at that production level, at every level, but the focus of this survey, we had to be very clear about whom we were targeting. And the issues for small-scale farmers, bought-leaf factories, and tea estates are very different, so it wouldn’t work to try to cover them all in one survey. So, we are targeting this survey at large tea estates; we intend to do surveys on factory workers and small-scale tea producers at some time int he future. But currently, we’re using the Indian government’s definition of a larger estate of five hectares or more and employing over 15 people to emphasize that this survey is not exclusively for India; it’s for any country where tea is being produced. So, all tea producers who meet those criteria are invited and encouraged to participate in the survey.

    Aravinda: What are the challenges you foresee?

    Sabita: The main challenge is getting producers to participate in the survey. Because over the years and centuries, much trust has been lost between the different players within the tea sector. And it will take time and careful work to tear down those barriers or dissolve them between the players. So, I want to reassure the producer that this survey will be done anonymously. And you can confidently answer the questions so that the responses will not be revealed to anybody. But what we’re going to do is we’re going to aggregate the results. So, a certain percentage of respondents confirmed that in the last year, this is how much of their made tea was sold below the cost of production. We’re not naming any producers. We’re not naming any buyers, brands, or retailers. We’re just going to focus on the generic responses that tea producers give us. But we also have space within the survey for producers to give us more detail if they want to. Again, those responses will be treated completely anonymously. And you know, if there’s anything within it that would identify the state or all their customers, we will not publish that. But it will be extremely valuable to have that information to feed that knowledge and understanding into the next phase where we’re developing. We’re working with the industry to develop an action plan. We invite producers themselves to be part of those multi-stakeholder discussions to be part of the discussion about what role they can play in improving the life and work of the workers, but also what they need from the other players within the value chain to enable them to do that.

    Aravinda: How different will THIRST’s on-the-ground research be from, say, audits by certification bodies? 

    Sabita: The Global Tea Producers Survey is a very, very different thing from an audit or certification standard. Audits and certification checks are just checking up on the producer. Whereas this is asking the producer to say what their challenges are, what their opportunities are, and what their situation is. So the data from this survey will complement what you get from audits. But it is a very different kind of study.

    Aravinda: Is there anything you’d like to put out there to producers on why they should participate in the survey, what is expected of them, and how the information will be used? 

    Sabita: All tea producers, managers, and owners of tea estates in whatever country they’re in should seriously consider taking part in this survey. This is not just a brief few questions; it will require an hour of your time and allow you to put your side of the story forward. THIRST is not about blaming any party for the situation of tea workers and farmers. But the voice of producers has yet to be heard. This is your opportunity. Often producers say that what is reported about them needs to be more accurate. This is your opportunity to give accurate information about managing a tea estate, paying workers a decent wage, and providing decent benefits. So please, please do take up this opportunity. Don’t be afraid, don’t be defensive. Because this is not an attack, this is offering you the opportunity to speak out.

    If you agree to take part you’ll be emailed a link. The survey is on Survey Monkey, which we’ve researched and have found to be the most secure. This spring we will aggregate the data we receive and we’ll put that together in a report to try to reflect the challenges that producers around the world are facing and what the situation is really like for them. And then, that report will be combined with our findings from the key informant interviews, and we hope that some of you will agree to take part in those interviews. And it will also be combined with the results of the alternative approaches that we hope to document. So when combined with the Phase One report, we looked at the problem. We look at how the tea industry works, and we will look at human rights in principle and human rights in practice. In Phase Two, we will have looked at the producers’ perspective. The key informant interviews will give insights into what could be driving some of these problems. And then also these alternative approaches, which will show us some of the potential solutions that there might be. And we’ll bring all that together for Phase Three when we invite tea stakeholders from around the world to come together to discuss what they, working together or individually or in groups, could do to address these problems. And thereby not only making lives better for tea workers and farmers worldwide but also strengthening the tea supply chain and improving the tea industry’s reputation.

    See What is THIRST, the International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea

    If you manage or own a tea estate anywhere in the world, THIRST would like to offer you the opportunity to give your side of the story by taking part in the confidential Global Tea Producers Survey.

    — Sabita Banerji

    We understand that issues like price discovery and purchasing practices can be commercially sensitive, and the survey provides for anonymity and confidentiality. We also believe the survey will help tea buyers to better understand the pressures that suppliers are under. Pressures which can impact on workers, creating potential reputational risk to both their brands, and to the industry as a whole. Results will be aggregated and neither producers nor buyers will be publicly named. 

    Consumers, investors and employees around the world are increasingly demanding higher social and environmental standards for those who produce goods and services. To meet that demand in the tea sector, everyone involved needs to explore how they might be unintentionally suppressing workers’ pay and conditions, including tea producers, governments, trade unions, tea buyers, brokers, packers, traders, brands, retailers and tea consumers.

    By working together, THIRST believes that a new kind of tea industry is possible – a tea industry fit for the 21st century, a kinder, fairer industry in which everyone thrives. But we can only get there if we listen to all voices, and understand all perspectives – including those of tea producers.

    Anyone who’d like to participate in the survey should go to THIRST’s website: www.THIRST.international Scroll down to see a link to the producer survey to register. And we very much look forward to hearing what producers worldwide would like to share about the realities they are facing.

    To register and complete the survey, please fill out this form before 31st January 2023.

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  • Estate-Direct Tea Retail at Scale

    Rudra Chatterjee, the dynamic managing director of Luxmi Tea, has expanded and diversified the venerable 30-million-kilo bulk tea producer into direct-to-consumer retail. Luxmi, which operates 25 estates in India and Africa, has shortened the supply chain to deliver fresher tea and now sources herbal infusions and inclusions for blends locally. Chatterjee discusses with South Asia Correspondent Aravinda Anantharaman his vision for rebranding the company as Luxmi Estates.

    Listen to the Interview

    Rudra Chatterjee on the rebranding of Luxmi Tea
    Bungalow at Makaibari Tea Estate, India

    Fresh Start: Luxmi Seeks to Shorten the Supply Chain

    When I last spoke with Rudra Chatterjee, Managing Director of the 110-year-old Luxmi Tea, he discussed a pivot to selling the brand’s offerings direct, as COVID brought more consumers online. Two years later, Luxmi Estates has launched as a significant business vertical. The retail brand offers a range of teas with a subscription program. In this interview, Rudra provides an update on future plans and explains his reasons for rebranding.

    See: Will the Pivot Online be the Catalyst the Farm-to-Cup Movement Needs?

    Aravinda Anantharaman: It’s been a while since we last spoke. Luxmi Tea has undergone a rebranding. Do talk to us about it.

    Rudra Chatterjee: I sense that there are two, or three aspects to it. There are some right-at-the-top marketing aspects to it, but below that, I think there are some layers to it. I always joke that this company was born in some sort of revolution.

    So we want to do something new, whether planting new bushes in Africa or in – although it wasn’t part of Luxmi then – Makaibari going organic. So it has a lot of DNA for trying new things. There are a few aspects to it. Number one is more than any other product, that tea is best fresh. But the supply chain isn’t designed to make it as fresh as possible. I think that’s something that we would like to start and we would like many other companies to follow: to make the tea as fresh and have it, using technology, to the customer as soon as possible.

    The second aspect, which is I think even more worthwhile, is tea estates have become monocultural spaces but it’s important to grow other herbs. For good or bad, tea is considered a healthy, hot beverage. And so if even a company for a hundred years as tea growers, we have decided to say that, you know, there are amazing places that grow turmeric right next to Addabarie tea estate. And that is a high curcumin level. Frankly, we are not inventing any herb. All the herbs that we are using are the ones that people for hundreds of years know are good for you. So whether it’s turmeric, whether it’s ashwagandha, whether it’s tulsi, whether it is masala chai, lavender, all of these are well-known herbs. But my goal is to source as much as it locally, whether from our own estate or by using farmers near our estate. So African rose from Rwanda, turmeric from Addabarie, we are using Himsagar mangoes, and Gondhoraj Lebu… all these things which are part of our culture. And so nothing that is just pure flavor, these are herbs.

    And along with that, we’ve obviously started our website, and one of the focuses is on the estate. And that’s why we call it Luxmi Estates. We are Luxmi Tea Company, that’s the official name of the company, but the brand is Luxmi Estates because I want to say that these teas are from estates. These teas haven’t been bought by someone and packed and sold.

    The second aspect is using the hand to say our Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth) is the plucker, and it’s her hand. When I think about the issues in the plantation sector of the tea industry, I think a lot of it is solvable. I’ve said that in an interview with you before if we can sell the tea if I can say that part of the revenue – and that part should keep going up – will go to getting a good impact on the farm. We’ve spent more than ten crore on education within the tea estates (a crore is 10 million rupees, approximately $125,000 in US dollars). We do not have the budget to keep going higher unless we find another source of revenue. So I think all of it comes together, the monocultural aspect, the freshness of the tea, and the lives of workers. I’m quite confident that we will succeed. The reason is, who doesn’t want a better product, fresher, at a fair price? You’ll see the prices are good, and the tea is nicely packaged. And we are not trying to reinvent what is good for you. You know what is good for you. You know turmeric is good for you; you know tulsi is good for you. We will find the best source of it; that is what we are good at – going to the farm and creating the best source, making sure it’s vacuum packed, and it’s shipped to you very quickly. And that’s one reason why we – because we are starting in the winter – we started with the herbal teas. We will add some of the regular teas also, but we wanted to start the regular teas during the first flush and the herbal teas now because this is the time for this kind of herb. So that’s my long overview of what we are trying to do.

    Aravinda: When we last spoke, it was also about how you were excited by the conversations you were having with the consumers via social media and the interaction that you were having. And that has really sort of driven a whole shift, isn’t it, in how you’re looking at retail, how you’re looking at direct-to-consumer and all of that?

    Rudra: Absolutely. The most important thing is the difference between selling to an invisible hand. You see the prices on the screen, but you hardly know who’s buying, and you don’t know how many steps it will go before the consumer comes. And I had said, I think at that time, even if we can sell 1% of our teas to consumers, we know and hear their opinion and what they like and what they don’t like. It’s great to hear from customers who love that Rugabano* is bright and that it steeps at three minutes, instead of four minutes. And that carries on to this conversation about turmeric and whether green tea will go with it.

    I’m open to experimentation. Only I am enough of a purist not to add raspberry flavor or something through the tea because I like the tea as it is. But if it is something that goes with green tea, one plus one is greater than two as it adds something and makes it easily accessible to the customer, and I know that the money is going back to the farm. It is not being taken away from the farm. This is good for the industry. Whether it’s ginger that is produced in Assam, the oranges and lemongrass of Makaibari, or Addabarie for ginger, there’s never the damage that monocultural crops extend to the tea estate. So it’s very good to have many other things along with tea and create other income streams, whether from flowers, honey, or herbs for workers. Like we did, we are doing homestays in the tea estate.

    This needs an imaginative solution. It is not a competitive solution. And it’s something that I would welcome everybody to. Because it’s something that we should all do — I’m not saying there should be one big brand — but there should be several big brands. But all of them should be fresh from the farm to the consumer.

    Aravinda: How big is retail a part of what Luxmi does now, and what are you expecting to see? And also the addition of the herbal teas themselves. Where did that come from? Was it the whole fallout of covid when the demand for such a kind of tea increased? Or was it that you had access to all these herbs and spices and all of that, and it just made sense to venture into that space? So what was the thinking behind that? 

    Rudra: A couple of things. One is even much before Covid; growing up on a tea farm, I’m very keen on different kinds of food. So I get like honey from one estate, I get ginger and turmeric, I get red rice, I get peppercorn. So I’ve never thought that tea estates only produced tea. One is the commercial aspect of it, but there are many others. Certainly, during Covid, one thing that changed was I spent all the time in the estate, not in the city, a little bit in Mirzapur, but mostly in the tea estates. In some ways, it was a far more open interaction with everyone there.

    Secondly, I think it’s clear, while, you know, people were coming and staying in Makaibari, I could see consumers of Makaibari staying in Makaibari and telling me things that, Why aren’t you doing, you know, mango with this and why aren’t you doing… And we started selling it in Taj, and then we started selling it at the Bagdogra Airport.

    From that sample set of few people, it was clear that this is certainly something that customers appreciate. You asked about the percentage of the business; I don’t think I don’t want this to be that all the teas that Luxmi makes should get into our own packages. Not at all. We will continue selling through traditional channels, and we will sell at auctions. We are very, as I said, very grateful for the business. And our prices have also been fine. You might have seen the Assam prices, the Rwanda, and Gisovu. Rugabano is number one and number two in all of Africa. Whether it is Makaibari or the Moran estates, all these are making very, very good teas. But it’s important to think of this as a sustainable solution for the long term. I don’t see why we will not go straight to the consumers with some of the teas. People will mostly continue buying tea from supermarkets, but some might care about something different and something they really care about, and they might want to subscribe to the tea. If they really like strong Upper Assam, they might subscribe to it from us.

    So that’s the thought. It’s still evolving, by the way. I can’t say that I’ve figured this out. It’s evolving, and I’m open to customer input and review. The challenge is whether I can ensure we are not weak in the product’s packaging or delivery. Because sometimes it’s so rustic when you do something from the farm. The package doesn’t open properly; it’s dripping or something. I don’t want that. I want people to say, okay, this is a world-class company making a world-class product, but with all the pluses of coming straight from the farm.

    Aravinda: What has been the response of the people on your estates – the factory and the fields?

    Rudra: Fantastic. I mentioned to you last time that tea planters love talking to people, as you know, you’ve spoken to many of them. So this has given us a whole new set of conversations. And people compete about customer reviews and what they like and, and if there is one review on one website, you’ll see a tea estate manager like taking a photograph of it and WhatsApping it to everybody saying, this is the comment from this customer.

    It’s actually great. Also, the more you put sunlight on work conditions in the tea estate, the more change you will get. And it is important that consumers understand there’s a cost to doing it. The money does not come from anyone other than customers. When you’re making the product, every penny we spend on everything comes from the customers who buy our tea, So we would like to make some special tea for really discerning customers, and hopefully, that’ll pay for some better facilities and infrastructure other than introducing the customer to a great product.

    Aravinda: So when you look at the Indian industry scenario itself today, given the kind of changes you’ve brought into Luxmi, whether it’s in product innovation, whether it’s in going direct to consumer and in tourism itself, what would you like to see as far as changes in the industry itself go? What do you think it needs in terms of solutions?

    Rudra: As a business student, businesses do well when forced to the world and innovate. And tea industry is in such a position today. We have been pushed into the world the way we worked over the last 50 years is clearly not working. Crops are coming down. Climate change is adding costs. There have been incredibly hot days this summer, and then we are having a lot of rain towards the end of the season.

    Now tea was an industry that loved routine. Wake up at 5.30 in the morning, go out in the estate, get the plucking rounds in seven days, pack the tea and forget about it, and go back next week. That’s not going to work anymore. You have to keep the discipline of the routine, but you have to add the willingness to change whatever you were doing every now and then. But that’s how, that’s how most of the industry is. That’s how most other industries are. There needs to be some radical changes. For example, I do think that the government and industry should work together and replant forests in some of the tea states, we cannot have this incredibly monocultural environment. And with lot of the forests having gone, the pests have increased, the climate has changed. So I think, there has to be an incentive to do that, from the government. But there can be some earning out of the forests, whether it is from timber or from honey or from fruit or whatever it is.

    And, we’ll have to innovate. Like one of the things I always say is we need more women in the industry, living in the tea estates and just rethinking how this business is done. It has been done the same way since maybe the late 1800s and 1900s. There have been some changes. CTC has come, and some others, but the changes have been few and far between. It is important to realize that the industry can provide jobs if it succeeds. And it is important for everybody to want the industry’s success, not just say that we don’t care about the industry’s success. We just want the entitlements out of the industry. That does not work, and that cannot work. I think it’s a big concern when you see many big companies that have been fantastic in their history and how they haven’t been able to continue. These were well-run companies with well-run management, but the 21st-century challenges are new.

    Aravinda: I hear a lot of planters say that we’ll do everything you’re asking of us, but it has to be financially sustainable

    Rudra: It’s our job to make it financially sustainable. But it’s also our job to think as management, not just ask someone to solve the problems. Every management has a responsibility to keep the business successful, and it cannot be outsourced to anybody.

    Aravinda: In your opinion, how has the Indian consumer changed? How has consumption changed, and how has the branding of tea within the Indian market itself? What have you seen change? 

    Rudra: I think tea is the best product in the world to sell online. Five reasons.

    Number one is it’s a habitual product, so that you can subscribe to it. It’s a food product, so you can’t return it. It’s high value to weight product. It is a product you can gift, and it’s a product that doesn’t matter what your religion is or how old you are; it’s a good-for-you product. It’s a healthy product.

    Maybe coffee also is an equally good product but, our advantage is that tea has many more varieties. So in terms of being able to have many SKUs, small MOQs is an advantage that tea has over coffee online.

    The fresher the product, the better it is. So, not only online, but online straight from the farm.

    And also, by the way, it’s the most consumed product in the world when it comes to, you know, the daily consumption of any one product more than salt or anything. So all of that together, it is a product that will make a lot of sense online. But now the thing is, it may evolve significantly. Maybe the last mile may not be online or some other aspects, but I think producers thinking about it are doing the right thing. Many of us will succeed, and many of us won’t. But I think the journey, the trajectory of this business, is to take this business from being treated like a commodity to a very personalized product.

    See Luxmi Tea Now Available Online

    Luxmi Tea is the official name of the company but the brand is Luxmi Estates because I want to say that these teas are from estates. These teas haven’t been bought by someone and packed and sold.

    — Rudra Chatterjee

    Aravinda: Right. And in the context of Indian tea, what do you think brand India tea needs right now?

    Rudra: Number one: Why isn’t Indian tea available outside India? When I travel abroad, I rarely see packages with Indian tea on them. You see Italian olive oil and Swiss chocolates.

    Now you also see cheeses from around the world, but why don’t you see Indian tea? I think the key aspect is that certainly the supply chain to which Indian tea was sold.

    The tea’s been sold for a long time. Just like everything else changes, this will also change, and we just have to figure out how it will be. It’s not going to be necessarily the same.

    The positive side is there’s this notion that I used to hear that young people don’t drink tea. That’s not true. I don’t know why that gained any credence. I think young people are reducing the consumption of alcohol and sugar drinks, and they’re reducing the consumption of plastic bottles and all of that. Tea is agnostic between hot and cold. Like I tried this 24-hour steep silver tips imperial from Darjeeling, the best tea I’ve had in a long time. And it’s completely different from the tea I usually have, but if it’s great Darjeeling tea, it’ll taste great if you let it bloom and evolve in the right way.

    Aravinda: In the context of the larger industry, how do you view the domestic market, and how do you think we can make those connections between the Indian consumers and the Indian tea producers stronger and more effective?

    Rudra: I think it has to be through various ways. And there’s not one Indian consumer; there’s not one Indian producer. There are going to be different kinds of Indian consumers and different kinds of Indian producers. There’s one thing that is generally true about the Indian consumer; they will go after authenticity and good value. They will go after freshness, which we need to drive at.

    In terms of Indian producers, good tea is appreciated. Every year we can see that. The price difference between the best and the rest of the best and the top decile versus the bottom decile is a V-shaped curve. So that is saying something. And we have to hear what the customer’s saying and then decide what resources do we have to take action to meet the customer’s requirement. There are all kinds of customers for all kinds of producers, so we just have to keep the right connection.

    *The Rugabano Tea Factory is located in the Karongi district in Western Province, Rwanda.

    Luxmi Estate

    A Heritage of Taking the Path Less Traveled

    In 1912, when the tea industry was predominantly British, PC Chatterjee founded Luxmi Tea as an Indian movement for self-reliance.

    Tea making was characteristically British at the time — sola toupees, burra sahebs, and sundowners. Luxmi was born out of PC Chatterjee’s quest to make Indian tea a tool in the Satyagraha movement and to break the British monopoly.

    With a tract of land in Tripura to his name, he began cultivating tea independently, without management agencies or advisors from London. Little did he know the extraordinary legacy he would create and set into motion with Luxmi.

    Other members of the Indian freedom movement — Assamese and Bengali students who rebelled against British rule, joined his company, then called Indian Tea and Provisions. What started as an expression of freedom from the British Raj has now come to stand for the freedom of spirit.

    — Luxmi Tea Company

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    Rudra Chatterjee
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  • Tea Retail Powers Perception

    Retail must do the heavy lifting in realigning the marketing of Indian tea. While online transactions are more common now than in past years, neighborhood kirana stores are the most commonplace Indians purchase packaged tea, accounting for 70% of sales. Supermarkets are the fastest-growing sales channel for packaged teas. Only 7% of tea is sold at tea shops that specialize in loose-leaf offerings. Household penetration is 88% and even in rural areas 75% of households now purchase packaged tea, but on average only 22% of households report spending more than INRs200 per month on tea, according to the Tea Board of India.

    • Caption: In Delhi, Mittal Teas opened in 1954. Nikita Mittal serves a cup to her father Vikram.
    Aravinda Anantharaman speaks with tea retailers on how marketing is changing the perception of tea.
    Celestè Tea Bar marketing its retail tea bar and packaged teas at a local tradeshow

    Convincing Customers to Take that First Sip

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    On the road between Siliguri and Darjeeling, a small tea stall would beckon visitors to stop for a break as they approach Margaret’s Hope Tea Estate. The estate ran the modest stall for years, the only convenient place for tea during the three-hour journey, says Atul Asthana, managing director Goodricke Group.

    In 2016 Goodricke refurbished and rebuilt this stop to create Margaret’s Deck, a restaurant and tea lounge that overhangs the cliff and overlooks the valley. The tea lounge is now listed as the No. 1 restaurant in Kurseong on Trip Advisor. It is both a popular stop and a significant marketing asset that invites visitors to sample and savor the tea and purchase packets to take back with them.

    Nothing sells tea better than sampling. The more people touch it and try – the more they buy. Goodricke opened more lounges, Queen’s Deck in Mumbai at the iconic Tea Board of India office, another one in Mirik, near their Thurbo Tea Estate, in Kolkata and Madhya Pradesh. The middle and north Indian belts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab are important markets for the group. In Kolkata, they have found their most discerning audience. Goodricke’s roasted Darjeeling tea remains the highest-selling brand in Kolkata, a city of 15 million.

    Long a hub for the British East India Company, the site of tea auctions, and a port city, Kolkata is the tea capital of India. It is the largest city in the state of North Bengal (the same state as Darjeeling) and is adjacent to Assam. Darjeeling tea is the tea of choice for the Bengalis but Kolkata is a massive and mature market for tea. It is also one of the few cities where the diversity of India’s taste for tea is on display. Notable among the more than 100 leaf shops include Lakshimi Narayan Tea House, Tearaja, Dhruba Tea Centre, Sharda & Sons, Subodh Brothers, Star Tea, and the Karma Kettle.

    In Delhi, Mittal Teas opened in 1954 to sell a range of teas and continues to be the store of choice for connoisseurs in the capital. Nikita Mittal, who has joined the family business, speaks of how access to tea can influence customer preferences, “Every walk-in is treated like a VIP, try to give them the best experience. And once they have tasted a good quality tea, whichever they choose black, white, green, chai, they don’t like going back to the average teas. So, that’s how we try and do it – one cup at a time.”

    “There is a restaurant in Gurgaon which is associated with us,” says Nikita, “The F&B Manager takes each and every thing about his beverages so seriously. How he presents the tea, the teapot, the timer… he educates the customer that you have to take it out in three or four minutes and that if you over brew it will ruin the tea if you under brew you don’t get the flavor. Those experiences matter and people always remember something better, that when they’re having a good time, a tea or coffee really added to the experience.”

    In 2008-09, Dhiraj Arora and Priti Sen Arora started Karma Kettle in Singapore, as a restaurant serving Anglo-Indian food. The tea menu was a big part of the restaurant and its experience. They had a ringside view of the explosion of the beverage market, as brands began to offer custom blending, pairing tea and food. It was an eye-opening experience, they say. Five years later, in 2011-12, the couple decided to return to India. At that time, India was waking up to green tea. Dhiraj’s family owns and runs Cochrane Place in Kurseong, a boutique hotel with Makaibari, Ambootia, and Castleton tea gardens as neighbors. Buyers from Europe who stayed at Cochrane Place introduced Dhiraj to blending botanicals with tea. All of these experiences led them to embark on their tea journey.

    In 2013, Karma Kettle launched as a tea brand, starting with ten teas that included four blends. As a brand, it reflects the couple’s aspirations — vibrant, youthful, with a love for travel. Their teas were marketed as “voyages in a teacup.” The teas were named for favorite destinations or a mood. “We wanted to give identity to a blend; we wanted our teas to ignite a sense of wonder,” says Priti.

    Part of their success is attributed to the fact that India was not only a liberalized market, but the urban Indian was now well-traveled and keen to seek experiences, whether here or abroad. “Experience” is a word that comes up often in the conversation on marketing tea. In 2016, Priti and Dhiraj opened the Karma Kettle tearoom in Kolkata as a space for people to gather. “Tea is about community,” they say, and they hosted guests for talks, tea tasting sessions, food, and tea sessions pre-pandemic.

    Proving that access to teas need not be upscale is the story of the tea Vandis. In the Nilgiris, tea vandis or trucks were launched last year by INDCOSERVE, the government-run cooperative of small farmers and bought leaf factories – the largest in India. In an earlier interview with Tea-Biz, Supriya Sahu (IAS), CEO of INDCOSERVE, had said, “Our factories were making losses. They did not explore other avenues, newer markets. They were quite content within the space that was made available to them… The tea market is volatile; we were vulnerable. Therefore there was a need for us to kind of explore other avenues. Why not explore selling packaged teas, that can be displayed on the shelf. If you want to sell, you have to create a brand.”

    INDCO Vandis
    INDCO Vandis offer convenience and expand the distribution of INDCOSERVE’s brand.

    Sahu launched the Indco Tea House at Kattabettu and Bedford in the Nilgiris, but the striking red trucks parked at popular tourist stops in the hills are what have caught public attention. They serve tea – INDCO’s brand of tea – and snacks. “Our dream is that we should be like Café Coffee Day chain or Starbucks. Why can’t we, a home grown outlet, be like that?” Sahu had asked. INDCOSERVE’s branding and tea vandis show how even small farmers can retail and find an audience.

    Online vs. offline

    But no matter what scale or legacy, whether they have a store or long history, everyone’s now online. Despite a robust brick and mortar presence, Mittal too expanded to the online space, adopting e-commerce as an avenue for tea sales.

    The extensive proliferation of mobile phones, access to the internet, and the burgeoning of smartphones have had a definite impact on the Indian consumer. It has also meant that it’s no longer the urban Indian who is the end consumer but significantly includes those who live in smaller towns, who aspire to a different way of life, and who can access products as quickly as an urbanite. The opening of markets has impacted consumption patterns, and it has led to several small brands coming up without the need to invest heavily in marketing.

    However, e-commerce is not just a platform for brands. Producers now find that they too can retail. Luxmi Tea is one of such brands that branched into digital with the pandemic. In an earlier interview, Rudra Chatterjee, managing director of Luxmi Tea, had said, “This was the first time that we sold tea directly to consumers. And the reaction is amazing because, after all as growers of tea, it’s great to hear from someone who’s drinking that tea at home. Also, for us to get feedback one week or two weeks after we produce the tea… questions on how to brew the tea, pictures of how they are drinking their tea … It’s been energizing for me and my colleagues who are growing the tea in the estate.”

    Jagjeet Kandal, industry veteran and currently Country Head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, endorses it, “Producers are at the mercy of the market… If the market doesn’t pay them, what are you doing? You can’t keep blaming the market. As a businessman, you have to say, I will get out or change the business model. Every estate should put out 5-10% in packets.” It takes very little investment if one leverages online channels. If more producers did that, it could create the ripples of change because e-commerce and digital marketing have opened the tea market, as it did other FMCG products.

    But there’s another side to this story. While starting digital, Karma Kettle soon opened a tearoom in Kolkata. Here lies another lesson: marketing tea is not exclusively choosing digital or offline but a blend of both.

    Tea vs. blends

    Karma Kettle does not own a tea garden. They see this as an advantage in the teas they bring their consumers. From tea farmers to suppliers of herbs and botanicals, they continue to service connoisseurs alongside those who seek flavored blends. Today, they have 100 tea blends.

    The distinction in the market segment is essential. In Assam, Raj Barooah, after entering his family’s tea business, was attracted to the idea of retailing. He eventually started Rujani Tea, a specialty tea brand. In a blog post, he writes that 1999 and 2006 were the worst period for the tea industry in nearly a century. “Prices fell, productivity was low, and demand for CTC teas in the Indian market plunged. It was very, very difficult to keep going.”

    From 2007 onwards, Barooah pursued the commodity trade, increasing his factory’s capacity. “But there was no joy in it for me. It brought back the old dream of doing something different, of creating a brand.” Traveling to China changed how he viewed the tea trade and his views on selling directly to consumers. Raj launched Rujani, named for his two daughters, as a brand that would represent the best whole leaf teas made at Aideobarie. Raj attempted to break the mold, assuming that Assam teas are CTC teas.

    The pandemic certainly changed how producers and brands view the domestic market. In 2020, the lockdown was announced just as north India geared to harvest its first flush. Closing borders, stores, and hospitality meant that consumers turned online. And producers and brands took steps to meet them here.

    Celestè was born during the pandemic, started by Anubha Jawar, who grew up amid tea in Siliguri. Celeste’s blends are their USP, with ingredients chosen to make them palatable to the Indian consumer. Here too, there is a focus on the experience. Celestè teas come in lovely packaging, but Anubha quickly points out that packaging is only part of the experience.

    Anubha Jawar

    She would instead focus on conscious consumption, whether in the material used to package the teas, the tea bags, or the quality of ingredients used.

    Celestè, like Karma Kettle, has succeeded in making tea appealing to a younger market by being a vibrant brand, more invested in flavors rather than tea’s snob value. Because that’s the other problem, Indian marketers will have to address — creating a new market for tea among India’s youth, something that coffee has succeeded in and will be hard to replace.

    Coffee’s success in India is credited to Cafè Coffee Day (CCD), a brand started by Chikmagalur coffee planter Siddhartha VG. Back in the late 90s, he set up “cyber cafes,” which were spaces where one could buy coffee and surf the internet. The personal computer and the internet had not increased in homes yet, so this was a huge success. CCD became a chosen hangout spot for the young and continues to be a popular option 20 years later, despite the arrival of Starbucks. Jagjeet points out another learning from coffee. “See what coffee did,” he says. “They never boast of the amount of coffee they sold, they boast of tastes… this how they become icons. They are selling on experience.”

    Chaayos and Chai Point are brands that constructed hundreds of outlets across the country, offering a range of teas and snacks. The audience for these are office goers who need a quick bite and want a reasonably good cup of chai. Both brands also offer chai in takeaway flasks that preserve the heat. A quick look at the menu points to what Indian consumers want — chai and green tea.

    The newest brand to enter the fray is Teas from India, launched in December 2021 by Amalgamated Plantations Limited. “Our journey with tea is intertwined with the history of tea in India. With our 150 + years of experience and expertise, no one is better placed to unleash tea’s potential by bringing the best from bush to cup. Combining tradition and innovation to put quality first, our vision is to grow profitably and sustainably by serving as the industry pioneer of tea in India. In doing so, we wish to contribute and be present in the entire value chain of tea,” says Vikram Gulia, Managing Director at APPL.

    APPL already had popular brands, some named for its estates, like Hattigor, which caters to the suburban and rural heartland and northern markets, and Majuli Mist; a roasted tea made for the West Bengal market. APPL launched Teas from India, targeting the millennial shopper looking for exclusivity and willing to pay the price for it.

    Teas from India was chosen as the name to represent APPL’s legacy and the significant search engine advantages it offers, which is helpful as it is marketed more heavily on digital platforms rather than offline channels. The brand’s raison d’être is to showcase the diversity of India’s tea regions by acknowledging them, whether Darjeeling and Assam or the Nilgiris and Dooars and even Himachal and Sikkim. And taking cognizance of consumer preference, they offer a range of blends.

    In the past regional preferences could be addressed by packaging various grades. Product diversification is more complex today, leading producers to keep up with trends — seen with the proliferation of butterfly pea flower tisane, turmeric blends, and, more recently, immunity teas.

    The pandemic jumpstarted the category of immunity teas, and nearly every brand quickly added it to their portfolio, catering to a health-conscious Indian segment.

    Green tea and chai

    Green tea has risen in popularity in the last ten years; although it has been around for longer, it was made for an export base. Its marketing has been one of the recent successes tea has enjoyed, and the marketing narrative has hinged on its supposed properties to detox and help its drinkers enjoy wellness. Both Tata Consumer Products and Hindustan Unilever led the green tea marketing with TVCs, ads, and young Bollywood actors as ambassadors, emphasizing the influence mass media and big brands have in shaping consumer preferences.

    But this has not been leveraged in creating a market for Assam orthodox tea. Ajay Jalan of Mokalbari Tea Estate and Chairman, Tea Association of India, says, “The cup that Assam produces — most of the consumers are not aware of it. We realize that more we give it to someone and get a repeat enquiry. The aroma and malty flavor that Assam teas have is not seen elsewhere. The market has blended teas of different origins and the true flavor of Assam tea is lost.” He adds that direct to consumer has started in a small way, but gardens don’t have the kind of resources it needs nor the marketing insight.

    The market share lies with Tata Consumer Products, Hindustan Unilever, and Wagh Bakri. They continue to influence consumer preferences. Says Kandal, “The big packeteers are the ones who create the impression with the junta. Tea needs to be upscaled at even the lowest price point. Why are they not looking at explaining the value that even the cheapest tea brings to the consumer? If the poorest of the poor is buying it, he gets some value. Can they talk about the value?”

    Jalan agrees, “The teas with major packeteers have been so commoditized that it does not encourage consumers to have more cups. Per capita consumption is still low.” He speaks of the need for a digital platform to promote Indian teas within the domestic and international markets. The Tea Association of India has proposed a Public-Private Partnership model, with producers and the tea board participating in creating the platform that will actively promote specialty tea.

    Every tea producer recognizes the need to diversify and meet consumers halfway. Goodricke started making masala tea post-COVID. Their most recent release is a range of iced teas. Made from green tea sourced from their gardens, Badamtam and Barnesbeg, and bottled in glass, they see a successful pilot run in Delhi with Kolkata to follow. Dorje Teas in Darjeeling has launched a cold brew for the domestic market, Gopaldhara is making red oolongs, and Woolah in Assam is making bagless tea dips… there is diversification and innovation taking place, which may be the shift in India’s tea narrative.

    But what of the consumer? Are they ready for a new way of drinking and enjoying tea? On the one hand, more than 50% of tea drinkers are from rural India, for whom price is a deciding factor. On the other hand, millennials with infamously short attention spans need to be hooked in the first 10 seconds of a post or a reel. The problem again returns to which India and which segment brands are pursuing. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. As many varieties of tea that the country produces, so too are the pockets that make up its markets.

    What has changed is really access, anyone can order tea from anywhere in India, and more often than not, two-day delivery is possible.

    Jagjeet Kandal

    “Tea needs to be upscaled at even the lowest price point. Why are brands not looking at explaining the value that even the cheapest tea brings to the consumer? If the poorest of the poor is buying it, he gets some value. Can they talk about the value?

    – Jagjeet Kandal, IDH The Sustainable Trade Initiative

    Stories that sell

    Rujani’s Raj Barooah chose to brand his leaves as whole leaf and not specialty tea. In his blog post, he writes, “I have come to realize that every specialty tea has to have a story behind it, sometimes true and sometimes, a better story than the tea. The success of this storytelling as a means to market the tea is evident, and has played an important role in birthing the category of specialty tea.”

    For brands, “stories” are the marketing hook. And there are plenty of stories from the tea lands of India, whether history, conservation, culture, communities, or even ghost stories! But few have been able to exploit these stories memorably. The narrative continues to be half-hearted rather than sustained attempts to tell India’s story even though the customer seems eager to hear more.

    Perhaps only Darjeeling has succeeded in offering customers a sufficiently intriguing story. There are many stories, from the story of young Margaret, who fell in love with the estate her father ran and promised to return but didn’t. Or, Jungpana and how it got its name from the dying and thirsty nobleman. One raconteur has used his skill to put his garden on the map: Rajah Banerjee, the former owner of the Makaibari tea estate.

    When Rajah speaks of Darjeeling, it’s to describe it as a “magical, mystical land.” Rajah’s family-owned Makaibari for several generations, and in 1970, Rajah came home from England, where he was studying. In a tale he narrates expertly, he talks about how he felt the trees were calling to him to save them. One listens raptly as he speaks because he tells the story so well. Makaibari tea has reached the Queen of England in its time if one must measure its brand success. As a brand, it was ‘organic’ before that became a buzzword and ‘sustainable’ before we had even started talking about it.

    “I was just having a love affair with this tract of land,” he says. “If you are passionate about whatever you do, whatever you’re committed to, you can market it. No tea is unsaleable. Every gram of tea can be sold. What you have to do is make that extra yardage to find a home for it.”

    Makaibari has been a rare Darjeeling garden to market early to a domestic base. Rajah recounts being away in Berlin when he was at a store and saw a packet of tea that claimed to be Darjeeling but was “packed in Sri Lanka.” Before Darjeeling was granted protection of the European Union’s GI (Geographical Indication), it showed him how much had been given away in the opportunity.

    In Darjeeling, Rajah opened up Makaibari to visitors. On weekends, he says, tourists arrived in large numbers, and every visitor got a tour of the factory and had a taste of tea. Everyone who walked out left buying a packet of tea. It was effortless marketing and helped build the brand. It was an experience people remembered.

    For the mass market, tea has been sold on other narratives. One of the early TVCs for HUL’s Taj Mahal Tea featured tabla maestro, Zakir Hussain, endorsing the tea. Keeping the brand’s link to classical music intact, the most recent commercial for the Taj Mahal brand asks consumers to make time for tea even as classical music plays on, appealing to refined tastes.

    Both TCPL and HUL have sought storylines that appeal to a higher ideal. For Tata, the Jaago re campaign was introduced in 2008 and is still in use. It started as a wake-up call to vote in the elections and expanded to various civic issues. HUL’s advertising covers many social issues, whether secularism, inclusion, or speaking up. Emotion and nostalgia continue to be compelling marketing narratives, especially for chai.

    The challenge for new brands is in the lack of resources to match these expensive ad campaigns and find a narrative that is emotive and memorable and their own.

    Because the best farm stories come from producers themselves, they are beginning to realize the interest consumers have in getting a peek into the world where their tea is grown and manufactured. And gardens are rich with these stories. Whether in how people live and work, flora and fauna, the plants, the factory… tea gardens are little worlds unto themselves; everything is potentially a story. An elephant herd passing through makes us stop and gasp with wonder; the paw print of a leopard on a muddy track is fascinating, as much as the journey of the leaf from the field, through the machines, and out.

    The big question

    Even as we speak of how digital is changing and transforming how consumers find, source, and access new teas, Raj Barooah voices caution. Sales are taking place on Amazon’s marketplaces, not the brand’s website. He points out. “Single digital websites like Rujani are not drawing traction. People prefer marketplaces. That’s where the whole thing is tilting. Even the bigger tea brands online are selling mostly on Amazon. “ He cites the story of Teavana in the US, the tea brand founded in 1997, bootstrapped but eventually reaching IPO and then bought by Starbucks for $620 million. “What became of Teavana? It peaked in success before a slump.” One reason cited is that its heavily retail presence could not keep up with online brands like DAVIDsTEA. “Are we still marketing tea?” asks Raj. “No one has found the growth curve. If Starbucks couldn’t, we are in serious trouble. There is a systemic problem in retailing tea. That’s the answer to the problem in marketing tea.”

    “It is simple,” says Jagjeet Kandal. “Very, very simple. How do you move Indian consumption from the 780g? Get a hundred people in the room. Give them one question. Because there’s a role for the government to play in that, there’s a role for the marketeers to play there. And there’s a role for the producers. If we answer that question, we will have a solution.”

    Maybe that’s the question, not whether people know about tea, or know how to source and brew it, and are willing to spend more on a better tea. Perhaps India’s tea marketing should begin with a single task of increasing consumption by one cup a day. 

    Realigning the Marketing of Indian Tea (Part 1)

    Indian legislators are currently considering a draft Tea (Promotion and Development) Bill to remove colonial-era provisions regulating tea and re-direct the Tea Board of India’s resources to expand existing markets and promote tea domestically. Tea Biz explores the challenges and opportunities of marketing Indian tea by examining:

    • A legacy of marketing tea as a blended, heavily spiced low-cost commodity beverage for the masses.
    • The rise of hundreds of direct-to-consumer (DTC) tea brands that rely on e-commerce as a promising and accessible retail platform.
    • Expanding choices available to tea lovers and how consumer preferences have moved beyond chai.
    Margaret’s Hope Tea Lounge grew from a humble roadside tea stall to become a marketing powerhouse.

    Nostalgia as a Trope in Marketing Tea

    By Ramya Ramamurty | Branded in History

    Nostalgia in marketing can be a double-edged sword – it may be twee to focus on quaint vintage designs or visual representation. It can also seem like a shamelessly exploitative marketing tool – to appeal to consumers in a way that borders on manipulative, like the low-hanging fruit of emotional recall. But when wielded correctly, it can be a lyrical exhortation to a more haloed historical era, to peddle something in the present by pointing out that the past is not all that different. It may inspire consumers to realize that in fact, in a lot of aspects, we are similar to our forefathers in what we want from life right down to how we eat and drink.

    Taj Mahal tea has a rich storied advertising past that it frequently refers to in its current advertising. We don’t even have to go that far back. I doubt anyone can forget the visuals of the 1980s ad featuring Ustad Zakir Hussain’s head bobbing to the scintillating beat of his table and ending with the tagline “Wah, Taj!” It’s remarkable how the brand managed to forge a connection between a virtuoso performance by a percussionist maestro of classical Hindustani music, and the idea that the tea is restorative, as endorsed by an icon like him. But it clearly worked and one thing brand managers know is not to fix something that ain’t broke. In fact, things have come full circle with recent ads by Swiggy actually referencing this ad. 

    I think the use of nostalgia works if the brand is trying to spotlight a value that was successfully evoked in the past. It would almost be criminal not to leverage their own history. It is also a strategic way to ensure that consumers realize that their brand has a rich heritage in successfully creating and selling a great product. For instance, Wagh Bakri Chai was started 107 years back and may want its consumers to know that they have been around all this while, or that they started as a small tea brand inspired by Gandhian ideology way back when.

    I think in the case of tea, nostalgia confers an immediate connection and grips the public imagination – reminding us of the tea we drank with our family, with friends, in decades past. It is still one of the first drinks we offer visitors and is a traditional beverage linked to Indianness despite its colonial origins, so it would make sense to leverage that in marketing it.

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  • India: What has Changed?

    India produces 20% of the world’s tea. Production, however, has stagnated for years. Costs are up, and prices and exports are flat. Professional tasters report a decline in quality. Marketing tea to domestic consumers is a promising way to move past the doldrums. Tea is found in every household and Indians drink an average of two cups per person per day, consuming 90% of the tea grown there — but mainly purchase lower grades. Per capita consumption is modest at 840 grams due to a preference for tea in blends. Until recently, India exported virtually all its best teas. Tea discovery there is discouraged as imports from China, Taiwan, and Japan are expensive due to high tariffs, but rising affluence is overcoming these obstacles.

    • Caption: Jagjeet Kandal, country head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative
    Aravinda Anantharaman speaks with Jagjeet Kandal at IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative
    Tea by the Lake Mirik
    The Goodricke Lounge by Lake Mirik

    Realigning the Marketing of Indian Tea

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    State Seal of India

    “When you look back, let’s say 30, 40 years, what has changed in the tea market? That’s the question we need to ask. And to me, there has been no great, no major earth-shattering change. Yes, we went from dabbas to paper boxes, tea bags, then poly packs… stuff like that. But the image of tea has not changed at all. And that, I think, is the basis of many problems,” says industry veteran Jagjeet Kandal, now country head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative.

    Indian legislators are currently considering a draft Tea (Promotion and Development) Bill to remove colonial-era provisions regulating tea and re-direct the Tea Board of India’s resources to expand existing markets and promote tea domestically.

    In this report, Tea Biz explores the challenges and opportunities of marketing Indian tea by examining:

    • A legacy of marketing tea as a blended, heavily spiced low-cost commodity beverage for the masses.
    • The rise of hundreds of direct-to-consumer (DTC) tea brands that rely on e-commerce as a promising and accessible retail platform.
    • Expanding choices available to tea lovers and how consumer preferences have moved beyond chai.

    Price as a factor

    “I think marketers need to take some of that blame because what they’ve done is made tea a common man’s drink. It has been marketed as the cheapest drink. When you market anything as cheap, it’s going to be very difficult to take that perception people’s mind and then tell them to come and pay more for it. So it was a short-term strategy or whenever this whole marketing stint started, but that’s the basis of what needs to change,” says Kandal.

    Price became a factor in sales, trumping taste. Brands fought on price. Across the country, orthodox tea is not consumed by the masses. South India, in particular, favors dust-grade teas. But every producer and every brand owner talks about how the per cup cost between a mediocre tea and a higher quality tea differs by only a few rupees. The point is convincing, but that message has not been communicated to consumers.

    New to tea

    A century after exports surged, generating substantial wealth, India was still not a big tea market. Seventy years ago, few Indians had ever tasted tea. In contrast, the Chinese have kept tea in their homes for 5,000 years.

    Like other plantation colonies, tea was cultivated in India to cater to demand in Europe. Wars and economic slumps disrupted trade, leading to a glut of tea that forced England to find new markets. The British turned expertly to India’s domestic population, marketing aggressively and creating a tea culture. It was phenomenally successful as tea is now an Indian legacy with deep cultural connotations.

    India was largely rural in 1960, with 82% of the population of 370 million housed away from cities. Household consumption as a percent of India’s gross domestic product peaked that year at 87.4% percent. Manufacturing was focused on domestic needs, and exports consisted mainly of raw goods. Tea was a vital source of foreign income.

    In 1960 India exported 195 m.kgs of tea and consumed 115 m.kgs. Ten years later, exports remained flat at 200 m.kgs, while domestic consumption had increased to 212 m.kgs. Today Indian consumers drink 90% of the tea it produces totaling a billion kilos in 2020.

    One would expect that this has reduced the producers’ dependence on the export market. It has not. But given how the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, marketing costs, and now, war, have impacted trade, freight costs, and exports, the need to cultivate and nurture the domestic market has never been more urgent. There’s a need to nudge consumers towards better quality, higher-priced teas and even specialty tea. What producers seek is 1) convince consumers to look beyond CTC and chai, and even if they must stick to CTC, purchase a better-quality product at a marginally higher cost; and 2) how to increase per capita consumption by at least 100g from its current 750-850g per year.

    There has been news of change brewing, with the Tea Board of India finally saying that they will no longer be a regulator but instead become a body that will market and promote tea. It’s a return to the Board’s original mandate, lost along the way and resurfacing now due to producers’ continuous demands. The Tea Board’s challenge will be to address India’s complex market. 

    Lessons from the past: The rise of packaged and branded tea

    In the 1980s, television emerged as a mass media platform financed by consumer interest in packaged goods. That same decade, Tata Tea, helmed by Darbari Seth and Krishna Kumar, transitioned from bulk sales to branded tea from company gardens. Tata spent large sums marketing Tata Tea, Chakra Gold, and Tetley.

    In 1984, Brooke Bond, India’s most popular and – certainly the oldest brand was acquired by Unilever. They had already diversified and merged with Liebig in 1968, generating $1 billion annually in sales. In 1984 PG Tips held 28% of the UK tea market by sales, and Tetley held 8%. Unilever, then the world’s largest packaged goods company, had acquired Lipton in 1977 but had no UK brands. In October 1984, Unilever spent $480 million to acquire 150 million shares, concluding a protracted and unfriendly takeover of Brooke Bond. Subsidiary Hindustan Unilever Ltd., (HUL) based in Mumbai, reported $5.3 billion in annual revenue in 2020.

    Privately held Wagh Bakri, founded in 1919 and based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, sold loose tea in wholesale and retail outlets until 1980 when it began distributing packaged tea. The company invests 10% of revenue on advertising has since grown to become India’s third nationally distributed packaged tea brand  

    In 1985, Atul Asthana, currently Managing Director, joined the Goodricke Group. The group was formed in 1978 and now owns 29 gardens in Darjeeling, Assam, and the Dooars. Some of the most prized teas in the world come from the Goodricke portfolio, including Margaret’s Hope and Castleton in Darjeeling. “Goodricke had to diversify,” says Asthana. At first, the company started packaging tea in 250g and 500g packets, with each of their gardens keeping aside a percentage of production to go into retail. Their focus was on serving the north and east India markets.

    “It is different from buying other teas. When you buy from auctions, the tea is already 4-6 weeks old. From there it goes to the warehouse and then on to the blenders. When we pack our teas, it’s fresher, it’s more immediate and it reaches consumer quickly,” said Asthana.

    Gardens have a fantastic advantage for retail, when going direct to consumer: By bypassing the auctions, they could bring consumers a fresher tea. Already leveraged by brands like Lipton, whose tagline was “direct from tea garden to the teapot,” it is surprising that more gardens did not take this up and aggressively brand and market their teas. The reason is that the wholesale market was robust, Asthana explains. In the 1980s, a heyday for the tea industry, demand outstripped supply. As Asthana says, everything that was being produced found a market. The Soviet Union absorbed all the tea produced in India. Few gardens found a need to retail to a domestic market.

    With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the tea industry, which had expanded to produce large volumes of tea, now struggled. As the share of exports declined, the domestic market discovered tea. Inexpensive and widely available, tea was a daily beverage that was easy to make and reasonably addictive. Before packaged teas, vendors sold loose-leaf in broken grades as blends customized to suit customer preferences (and local water conditions). Packaged blends delivered consistent taste, were cleaner and remained fresh in storage. Packaging was more appealing and convenient. Sales increased during the 1980s and 90s as the preference for branded tea grew. Ultimately a combination of factors, including higher disposable income, the proliferation of television, and other forms of advertising, along with the move toward trade liberalization. The only hitch was that this market was still extremely price-sensitive.

    Chill Out with Chai
    Ad for new iced tea range from Goodricke

    “The wholesale market was robust in the 1980s, a heyday for the tea industry, demand outstripped supply. Everything that was being produced found a market. The Soviet Union absorbed all the tea produced in India. Few gardens found a need to retail to a domestic market..

    – Atul Asthana, Managing Director, Goodricke Group


    • We end the two-part series with the questions needed to solve the mammoth task of rebranding the industry and realigning the domestic market toward quality tea.
    Margaret's Hope at Sunset
    Sunset at Margaret’s Deck, Kurseong, a tea lounge operated by the Goodricke group

    How Tea Came to be Swadeshi

    Swadesh was the call for independence – it translates roughly as our ‘own country.’ Mahatma Gandhi promoted swadeshi products to build national pride and self-reliance.

    By Ramya Ramamurty 

    Tea was planted by the British in India to ensure an optional country of origin for their favorite beverage. China was the leading tea producer at the time. Tea plantations in India were an astute way for the British East India Company to de-risk this commodity in case the balance of trade with China was threatened by war or insurgency. 

    As the chapter on ‘Snacks and Biscuits’ in my second book Branded in History mentions, tea was seen as a ‘drug food’, and planted in India in Assam, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. Optimal conditions, conducive for the growth of tea, meant adequate rainfall, the right pH of the soil, and cool temperatures by Indian standards. The tea plantations were fairly oppressive under the colonial powers – indenture was common as a way to supply low-cost labor to the expanding plantations. But there were a few brands that came up in India with indigenous tea bushes or entrepreneurs.

    In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scot who was wandering in the upper Brahmaputra Valley, near Rangpur in Assam, came across some wild bushes that changed the tea industry forever – it was the first discovery of indigenous tea. The Chinese imports had not taken as well as the British had hoped because of the summer heat in India. A couple of years later, 12 chests of Assam tea were sold for the first time at London auctions, paving the way for the foundation of the first tea plantation company in India: Assam Company India Ltd., (ACIL). The company was founded in London in 1839 and although they focused on tea, the management, which included dignitaries like Charles Alexander Bruce and Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, wanted to keep options open to trade in other commodities like lime, coal or oil so the word tea was not referred to in its name. The company is still around, with its registered office in Kolkata, off Bentinck Road, named after Lord William Bentinck who was the Governor General who set up the first tea committee in Calcutta.

    Another company that was born in colonial India and survived the various political upheavals and is still going strong is Wagh Bakri. Its founder Narandas Desai owned 500 acres of a tea estate in South Africa. His experience of racism there forced him to move back home to India with nothing more than a few valuables and a reference letter from Gandhi, in which Desai was hailed as an honest and experienced tea planter in South Africa. Desai started the Wagh Bakri Tea Company with a retail shop in Ahmedabad in 1915 with a logo espousing their values of equality. It showed a wagh (tiger symbolizing the upper class) drinking tea from the same cup in harmony with the bakri (goat) lower class. These are just two of the brands that launched in that era. Clearly tea took off as India is now the second largest tea producer worldwide, with 13,000 tea gardens, employing more than two million people.

    Back in the pre-independence era, tea drinking became more acceptable in certain strata of society, and in those pockets, it replaced alcohol as a social lubricant. By the 1940s, as calls for Indian independence reached fever pitch – tea was seen as synonymous with colonial oppression. Notably, Gandhi discouraged Indians from drinking it as he felt it legitimized British presence in the country. British tea brands like Lipton, Twinings or Tetley that were being patronized by the British in India were replaced by the local Assam and Darjeeling teas that became more popular as we moved to Swadeshi.

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