Tea Biz traveled to Badulla, Sri Lanka, in early May to participate in the annual Fresh Tea Festival. Hundreds of local tea growers each carried an offering of intricately arranged tea leaves on a ceremonial plate or a small sack of processed tea. Accompanied by Geta Bera drummers and Wadiga Patuna dancers, they paraded through the city streets to the ancient Muthiyangana Raja Maha Vihara Temple courtyard, where a Buddhist monk blessed the season’s first harvest.
Caption: The Ven. Wachissara Hamuduruvo, a Buddhist Monk and senior lecturer in the Department of Public Administration, Faculty of Management at Uva Wellassa University, presides over the first harvest blessing at the temple in Badulla.
Tea Planters and Pluckers Present First Harvest Offerings
By Dan Bolton
Badulla is an ancient city of 50,000 located in the remote central mountains of Sri Lanka. It is the capital of Uva Province, where tea is grown on steep hillsides alternately exposed to the northeast and the southwest monsoon winds.Plantations are located between 3000 and 5000 feet above sea level. Here, Thomas Lipton cultivated the world’s most popular tea blend. The district’s distinctive, aromatic high-grown broken orange pekoe (BOP) grades have earned a top price at auctions for over 150 years.
The city is a picturesque tourist location with guest inns, small hotels, resorts, and bungalows. The rail station is the remote terminus of the upcountry railway built by the British in 1924 to transport tea to Colombo.
Tea is the major employer with a mix of plantations and smallholders. Once a year, the tea community gathers for the annual First Tea Festival.
Entering the temple gates
Geta Bera drummers
Kandyan dancers in traditional garb perform a ritual dance initiated centuries ago.
Kandyan (upcountry) dancers
Badulla Tea Community Celebrates First Harvest
Temple guardians. Sri Lanka is one of the three island nations where the Asian Elephant breeds in the wild.
Offering the first leaves of the harvest
On Saturday, May 6, I joined Sri Lanka Tea Board Director of Promotions Pavithri Peiris and staff members for the annual First Tea Festival Parade. The Tea Board’s Regional Office in Bandarawela organized this year’s festival.
Parallel lines of pluckers and tea planters formed ranks at the Badulla administration building with tea offerings in hand. Masked dancers costumed in bright yellow skirts readied themselves to perform the Wadiga Patuna, along with Kandyan men wearing Ves Netuma chain vests adorned with silver ornaments. On a large flatbed truck, workers readied a silk-covered platform that supported a huge brass urn to receive offerings of finished tea. Musicians took their places, and the parade began to the beat of Geta Bera drummers.
A Buddhist monk in bright saffron robes motioned for me to walk with him along streets lined with onlookers. He explained to the curious that I had traveled 12,000 kilometers to convey the gratitude of tea drinkers in the West.
The parade route was less than a kilometer.
Barefoot we approached the temple grounds guarded by four Asian elephants. The sacred site honors Siddhartha Gautama (who lived from 563 to 483 BC). Known as the Buddha, he was a prince born in what is now Nepal who traveled to Sri Lanka 2500 years ago during the eighth year after his enlightenment.
On Station Road, near the temple entrance, a small herd of goats grazed at a roundabout near the clock tower as the drummers and dancers in bearded masks performed in the town square. Vendors sold lotus flowers to the crowd. Stands with fruit and fresh coconut lined the temple walls within sight of a brilliant white dome-shaped stupa built to preserve the Buddha’s relics.
The sand-covered courtyard was peaceful and cool, shaded by palms and bodhi trees of massive girth. The largest tree, surrounded by a gilded enclosure, its limbs braced by ornate support brackets, was planted by an early Ceylon King, Dewanampiathissa, who converted to Buddhism during his 40-year reign from 247 to 207 BC.
On arrival, celebrants carried the brass urn to a long marble altar and unveiled it. Planters then began tearing open small bags of tea and pouring the tea into the urn. Pluckers brought fresh leaves, forming a large pile near a statue of the Buddha. The crowd was devoted, joyous, and eager to present their teas before sitting cross-legged in the sand to join a meditation led by the monk.
The monk’s harmonic chants calmed the crowd, who joined in. He then spoke of the harvest before blessing the tea on the altar.
He explained to the crowd that Buddhist blessings rely on energetic cultivation, not simply prayer. Buddhists earn merit through mindfulness, meditation, chanting, and performing rituals. To be blessed requires practical actions to accumulate merits and good deeds.
Everyone then socialized over tea with snacks and fruit near the museum on the temple grounds and were on their way back to the fields by noon.
Harvest blessings originated centuries ago. Tea was first cultivated in Ceylon in 1867 and has since become one of the nation’s most important agricultural products. Sri Lanka is only 500 miles from the equator, so the harvests are not categorized as flushes. The harvest begins in May and peaks from June through September at this altitude. Production of high-grown tea in five provinces totaled 65 million kilos in 2021. Auction prices for these teas averaged $3.90 per kilo in May. Badulla’s rural economy is dominated by tea, making the blessing of the first harvest one of the more important observances on the calendar.
Dan traveled more than 1,500 kilometers during a 10–day visit to Sri Lanka in May 2023. My travels were sponsored by the Sri Lanka Tea Board, chaired by Naraj de Mel, with accommodations at the Tea Research Institute courtesy of Dr. K.M. Mohotti. “I’m deeply grateful for the joyful days spent with Pavithri Peiris, the tea board’s Director of Promotion, Gayan Samaraweera, Market Promotion Officer, and Chathura Fernando, Market Analyst. Gayan and Chathura photographed the scenes above.
Tea Biz traveled to Sri Lanka in May to the foot of 7,359-foot Adam’s Peak, known locally as Sri Pada (the Budda’s Footprint), a conical sacred mountain ideally suited to tea. Forest Hill Tea founder Buddika Dissanyaka narrates a hike he is leading to a forest of 900 tea trees growing wild on an estate abandoned 140 years ago.
Caption: Forest Hill founder Buddika Dissanyaka at the edge of Sri Lankan tea forest.
An Abandoned Estate Transforms into a Tea Forest
By Dan Bolton
Millions of tea trees, first Introduced in 1867, can be found along the 268-mile length of Sri Lanka, a tropical paradise of tea estates that employ 1.5 million people today. The trees at Warnagala Tea Estate, established in 1890 by Scottish planters, today rise 40 to 50 feet into the rainforest canopy on the slopes of the sacred Sri Pada Mountain range. Pluckers climb into the trees to retrieve green leaves for tea making.
We’ve traveled a long winding road and crossed narrow bridges over fast-moving streams to reach a forest of tea trees 2,900 feet above Sri Lanka’s shores. Joining us to talk about opportunities in specialty tea is Buddika Dissanyaka, one of many smallholders that have energized Sri Lanka’s tea sector. This new generation of rural entrepreneurs produces much of the tea grown in Sri Lanka, one of the world’s top tea-producing countries.
Dan Bolton: The tea forest is quite remarkable, Buddika. Will you share your story with our readers?
Buddika Dissanyaka: Thanks for coming all this way to hear from us.
I’m a professional planter. After schooling, I joined the planting sector as a junior assistant superintendent, and I continued my career for 15-16 years to become one of the youngest superintendents in Sri Lanka.
And then, I thought of starting something extraordinary. I have a good knowledge of tea and did a lot of research into what I might do. I figured out that there is a potential for making artisanal handcrafted teas. So here we are, speaking, just below the tea forest.
While attending school in Kandy, I used to go down here with my friend to hike at this place. I noticed that it had very big tea trees growing in the forest. So I thought to start handcrafting artisanal wild tea for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka from this source.
Since then, we have officially registered under the Sri Lanka tea board to start a micro tea factory. And now, we are proud to say that we are handcrafting artisanal tea and circulating it around the world. And we won some gold medals. We showcase that Sri Lanka can actually produce very good quality teas compared to the other countries that make very high-quality tea.
Dan: Will you describe the pristine waterfalls and steep hillsides and explain how the dense forest that surrounds us, with its diversity of wildlife, animal life, and plant life, improves the tea?
Buddika: This estate was originally planted by Scottish planters. They originally brought seeds from Assam, India, and Yunnan Province in China. So we have both varieties growing in the forest. One is Camelia sinensis, and the other is Camelia sinensis assamica. About 140 years back, the founders just abandoned it. The forest has reclaimed the estate over a century without human touch.
During our century, the tea estate developed a thick biodiversity where animals are roaming, different species are growing, and spices are growing. So it gives a different character to our wild tea. The root structures are such that the taproot has gone down and down and down where it absorbs top-quality minerals for its leaves. We focus on very high-quality leaves to craft our teas. So our tea has very different characteristics.
Dan: So this is a tea blended by nature. The two species often don’t grow side by side, but because of the unique nature and microclimates in Sri Lanka, we can see mature teas joined together to create a bio-fauna. It’s a situation in which the teas live together in harmony.
Buddika: Yeah, it’s actually very unique.
Dan: We proceed two kilometers, climbing a wash that serves as a service road until we reach the edge of the tea forest.
Buddika: Now we are in the forest.
This is Camellia sinensis, the assamica type of tea tree. These are small tea trees. So we have a lot of big tea trees. We have plenty of assamica, but we have lesser amounts of Camellia sinensis sinensis. So, these trees are living in harmony with the forest. You can see this one is a Camellia Sinensis sinensis. We make a lot of green teas from this variety, which is a very subtle, smooth tea.
Dan: In this area, there are wild-grown spices, right?
We know many of the species growing in the forest are original plants. So, we know what is wild pepper, wild cardamom, wild clove, and wild cinnamon. We also saw stores offering lots of artisanal natural spice blends. So, we began sourcing our spices in a very sustainable manner. We don’t disturb the diversity in the forest. We harvest only small quantities in the proper season and return to our factory and do our blending. And that is how we preserve this nature.
Dan: When we returned to the small two-story factory in Kuruwita, I asked Buddika to tell us more about his technique of hand-processing these teas in small batches.
Buddika: We craft only wild forest-grown tea without damaging the environment and are becoming an example to others. We can work within the forest without destroying it. All our artisans are very skilled, and we always guide them to develop their skills, as we are so concerned about the quality. We are making a small profit in our retail business, so we would like to expand our retail business since the profit margins go to all the stakeholders including artisans, farmers, and the local community.
Dan: Will you share details about how you market your teas overseas?
Buddika: We can ship our teas worldwide by DHL, and EMS customers can reach us through our Facebook and INSTAGRAM.
Enthusiasm for the United Nations-designated International Tea Day is peaking this year as tea associations, governments, and brands join in the May 21 tribute to a global tea industry that has increased production from 4.3 to 6.5 billion kilos in the past decade, enabling tea drinkers to enjoy 8.2 billion cups a day. A few of the many activities are linked below.
Caption: Tea is celebrated worldwide on International Tea Day (Sunday, May 21, 2023).
The European Speciality Tea Association announced a Zoom fundraiser to support women in tea. Promoted as the world’s biggest sipping event, the online gathering begins at 2 pm (British Summer Time) on Sunday, May 21.
“We plan to invite more than 1000 people worldwide to raise a cup in unison to celebrate this amazing beverage generating 1000 pounds sterling before and during the event to empower women in tea management. Women have been marginalized in the tea-making process and other management leadership roles within the tea industry, and we want to be a catalytic force to initiate change there. The hour-long event will be recorded for viewing on demand. Visit www.specialityteaeurope.com to register.
Paola Cruz is a wellbeing influencer @practicewithpaola will talk about tea and wellbeing and how to infuse this in your life.
Virginia Lovelace, author and tea scientist, will talk about improving your tea experience at home.
Nepal tea collective sisters will talk about their life in tea.
Muskan Khanna will talk about being one of the youngest women tea makers.
Madelaine Au will talk about organizing a successful tea event in Oregon.
Lucy (Mynt Mynt) Shwe from Mother’s Love Tea in Myanmar will speak about the uniqueness of Burmese tea culture.
Bernadine Tay from Quinteassential is a Founding Director of the European Speciality Tea Association and will host and moderate the event.
ARGENTINA Expo Té Argentina, in Posadas, Misiones, is a three-day event marking the 100th anniversary of commercial tea production. The event is May 25-27 and includes garden tours, a tea business conference, an exposition, and a tea fair. Learn more…
• Tea product business round: May 26 from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. • Expo May 25 and 26 from 4 to 9 pm • Tour with Producers of the enterprises: May 27
BELGIUM The Chinese Tea Culture Center in Antwerp will host a tea meditation and tea circle from 3-6 pm on Sunday, May 21. The Belgium Chinese Tea Culture Association is a non-governmental and not-for-profit culture association whose mission is to promote peace, harmony, and respect for the ECO nature and humanity in society through tea and tea serving.
CANADA The Tea and Herbal Association of Canada will host its 4th annual Sofa Summit on Friday, May 19, from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm (Eastern Daylight Time). Join THAC President Shabnam Weber for 11 hours of conversations with tea experts, tea association representatives, and growers worldwide.
UNITED STATES The inaugural Eugene Tea Festival will be held at the Farmer’s Market Pavilion in Eugene, Oregon, from 10 am to 4 pm (Pacific Daylight Time). Organizers invite participants to enjoy tea tastings, educational workshops, and a vibrant marketplace. Learn more…
Teeverband board member Annemarie Leniger explained the ambitious goals of the industry: “Teas, in all their diversity, are not only part of a highly developed culture of enjoyment, but they are also becoming increasingly important as a valuable, natural food in this country. As a commodity, tea builds bridges between the continents, connects young and old tea fans, and should further promote economic developments in the countries of origin if German tea manufacturers have their way.”
European Tea Day organizers announced the inaugural June 2 celebration in Brussels with panel discussions describing the European tea market, new ways of attracting next-generation tea drinkers, and a tasting session. Learn more…
Tea export earnings help to finance food import bills, supporting the economies of major tea-producing countries.
The tea sector contributes to socioeconomic development, representing a major source of employment and income for millions of poor families worldwide.
Tea thrives in specific agro-ecological conditions and environments, often impacted by climate change.
In order to ensure benefits for both people and the environment, the tea value chain must be efficient and sustainable at all stages, from field to cup.
Vahdam Tea founder Bala Sarda is launching a new line of 25 Indian spices grown free of adulterants and pesticides and manufactured without artificial colors. Initially, Vahdam spices will be sold directly to consumers and later offered in grocery stores.
Listen to the interview
Bala Sarda’s Vahdam Tea turned eight this year. From launching Vahdam as a brand that connects tea drinkers with producers to a range of superfoods with turmeric, moringa, and matcha, Vahdam’s journey has been about an Indian brand offering consumers across the world what they want, direct from the source. The latest addition to the brand is a range of Indian spices, now offered not unlike their tea. We talk to Bala about the new launch and what it means for Brand Vahdam.
Aravinda Anantharaman: Thank you, Bala, for joining us here at Tea Biz. I know it’s a busy time for you. But first, congratulations on all the developments and in particular the launch of Vahdam Spices. How did that come about? And how does that fit into the larger Vahdam Brand?
Bala Sarda: Thanks, Aravinda for having me on the show. Excited to be here. I think this is just to give you a sense of our vision and our dream with which we are trying to build the brand, right from the early days that I started this almost eight years back, in 2015. This month will actually turn eight. And from day one, I think one of the key things we identified, Aravinda, was this incredible opportunity, which India as a country offers. I think if you really look at a product like tea, as we all know, India is one of the largest producers and exporters of tea in the world. In fact, almost a quarter of the world’s production of tea happens in India. You look at tea-growing regions like Darjeeling, Assam, and the Nilgiris, these are GI indications, right? Just like Champagne and Cognac in France. I think we genuinely know that there’s a consensus among connoisseurs that India grows the finest tea in the world.
We looked at a category like spices even early on, where, if you look at the stats, India is the largest producer and exporter of spices in the entire world. We have the largest variety of spices we make as a country. If you look at some of the more popular variants of spices, say turmeric, 80% of the world’s turmeric is actually made in India and the list goes on and on. Yoga, Ayurveda… there is so much India has to offer and I think, very early on, we realized that all these products are being exported from India at single-digit margins. There is no Indian brand or there is no brand at origin, which is, adding value and taking this product to consumers in global markets. There is no innovation in the category, Of course as we know right supply chain was extremely broken. There were multiple middlemen, right from a farmer in India to consumers sitting even across the world And that just told us that there is an opportunity for us as a brand to solve and make available a much better higher quality, fresher product to consumers.
Lastly, and most importantly, tea is also, the largest employer of labor in India. You add spices to it, this is potentially the largest employer of organized labor in India. And India is the most populated country in the world now, according to some stats. I think this is a massive, massive industry we are talking about that has been, plagued with stagnancy right? The farmer’s costs have not gone up, and the prices of tea and spices have not gone up. Everybody wants to come out of this industry. Estate owners want to shut their estates down or sell them even though this is such an amazing business on the consumer-facing side of things. This is such an integral part of consumers’ life in all these markets. And I think the biggest reason for that again was that there was no value addition. And there was no homegrown brand, which was taking it taking it to the world.
So, just like tea, where we said, hey, can we cut down the middleman, source direct, process it, bring innovation to the product, to our supply chain, and make available a much better product to consumers through the power of the internet? I think the crux of everything we do at Vahdam is the internet. I think it’s truly democratized global consumer brand building because today’s sitting out of India, a brand like Vahdam can you know, can sell to over 3.5 million consumers globally, which I think was unimaginable right before the internet came in. So of course, the bedrock of our distribution is the Internet.
So when you combine all of this, the gap in the market, the opportunity to make available a better product plus obviously a strong differentiated brand story, that is obviously high trust with origin brands, you know all French wines, Scotch, chocolates, anything and everything that we’ve grown up, believing that origin products are more trusting And third is the internet is how we sort of built business in tea for the last eight years.
That said, I think we were fortunate to have a tremendous response, And I think there were two, or three signals, which got us to get into spices. First of all, Aravinda, a lot of our teas have spices as an ingredient in them. In fact, a lot of our herbal teas that don’t have tea, it’s basically a concoction of different spices. In addition to that, we launched this very innovative range of turmeric teas back in the day in the US which is widely popular across markets.
Very early on I think a lot of our consumers started emailing me and telling the team that while they love the quality of our spices and they consume tea, they do not have an alternate option, which is as good when they want to, use it for say, lattes, for their cooking, for curries so on and so forth. And that got us thinking that there is a tremendous opportunity even in the spices market for applications, which is non-tea, right? So that is something we’ve been receiving as customer feedback for the last three years, if not more.
Second, if you look at the brand, Aravinda, the long-term vision of Vahdam is to take the best of India to the world, right? Going back to why we started, what we are doing with Vahdam was, can we take the best of India to the world under a proud, ethical, sustainable, homegrown label? After getting some stability in tea, if I can put it like that, we said, hey, what’s the second category we can get into and you know, probably create an impact near to what we are trying to do in tea? This is what has got to think of spices as a very, very natural progression, right?
I’ll give you a small example. We did this brand study to understand what consumers think of us selling spices. A lot of those consumers thought Vahdam is already selling spices. So, that just tells you that the perception was always this is a brand, which is bringing the best of India to the world, and that again, you know, just reinforced our, our vision of, getting into spices.
And lastly, and most importantly, I think, over the last three years, we have spent a lot of time like tea in building the supply chain. We work with a lot of direct farmers, and cooperatives. Unlike tea, I would say spices are slightly more disorganized. You will see a lot many smaller farmers versus, you know, like a Darjeeling is 87 estates. So I would call it organized versus, you know, somebody growing tulsi to see in Utter Pradesh, you know, there will be thousands and thousands of farmers doing that, right? So bringing them together, with the consistency, the quality… Of course, it’s a product, which is exclusively available outside India. So obviously there are several parameters around the use of pesticides, the product being organic, the product being pesticides and toxins free, right? So I think we spent a lot of time over the last three years or more. In fact, because of tea, we had started using it, but we got very, very serious about it in the last 24-36 months in the spices categories as well. And then we were sure that we have something that we can scale is when we decided to you know, finally get into spices around our 8th Founders Day.
Aravinda: You talked about the supply chain innovation, you talked about the product innovation. So what were the lessons you were able to bring from the journey you’ve had with tea into spices?
Bala: I’ll start with product innovation. First-time entrepreneurs can be very naive and I’ll be very, very honest with that, right? Sometimes you think you have, you have created a product. And there is a demand for that. One of the things which I learned in my journey at Vahdam Teas, building the tea category which we still, I think it’s still very, very early days and we’re still building that, so, don’t get me wrong there, but I think was, how do you listen to your customers more, right? So here I think instead of believing what we can make available to customers, which is what we did with tea in the early days, here, everything was customer-driven.
The signal for us to get into this category came from customers which we, then obviously took that signal, went very deep, probed our current customers, and did multiple studies in the market to first, understand: Should we do it? If we do it, what are the kind of products we need to do? What are the real challenges in this category? And then we identified trust as a big deficit. There was a big trust deficit, especially for products coming out of India. You would have a foreign label branding it is as packed in America. Obviously, the tea, the spices being Indian, which was still being accepted. But, again, like what I saw with tea early on as well, right, we saw that with spices. We, very early on, realized that, how do you build amazing trust with the customer and you know he is going to be super critical around, everything we do. And of course, having the Vahdam brand equity made a big difference in helping us do that.
But from a product side of things, I’d like to give you a small example. We work with organic-certified farmers across India. Most of our spices are certified organic whichever can be and we will try to keep it that. Despite the fact that we also want to work with a lot of small farmers who on paper have absolutely toxin and pesticide-free products but which time we potentially certified organic because if you have one acre of land just the cost of certification is so high. So we also want to support them. We build trust by, you know, ensuring that all our spices are tested in European labs, which are considered to be the most, the highest standards in terms of testing parameters and just the sensitivity of that instruments around the product. So I think a lot of these things were, very, very critical to us getting to the product. And what’s our brand positioning, what’s our go-to-market? What do we communicate to our consumers? And I think that that’s the one learning, I think all of this, we did was actually based on all our learnings you got in the tea category and things we went wrong or fumbled rather several times in our journey, building the tea category, that would be number one.
And on the supply chain piece, I think, Aravinda, I think, to be honest, I believe it’s a playbook we are trying to build, right? If you look at tea and spices, I think the only fundamental difference was that spices were a slightly more tougher and disorganized category, versus even tea. But I think the principles of our supply chain, which is, how we ensure we source direct from farmers. How do we cut out middlemen? How do we ensure that we sort of address the fragmented supply chain? How do we ensure that there is enough no matter where you source it from?
All our spices are packed in our own facility. Like tea, we source, process, blend, and package 100% of our spices within our facility today. It’s BRC Certified A grade facility in the NCR region near the Delhi airport and ships it out to consumers.
Investing in the supply chain early on can give you long-term results is again, something we knew very, very closely. So I think broadly no real learnings in the supply chain piece because that’s really what we had done. Probably right in tea and… you know just how do you scale that up and do it in slightly different categories is really the challenge we are addressed since the last 24 months.
Aravinda: Why have Indian spices not been marketed as single-originspices? Is it because it’s also a commoditized segment?
Bala: Two reasons. I think one definitely I think it’s been very, very commoditized. The category, the product has been extremely commoditized over the years, even though it’s an amazing, such an important part of our lives. It adds flavors, spice, and so much life to your kitchen, to your food, and to everything you consume right. And a lot of things that don’t even come on that level of impact in your life still have been marketed better. I think it was just about somebody, you know, taking that step and trying to, at least market the product better. And, that’s really, the first understanding we had. That it’s a commoditized market but it’s very, very important to the consumer, which means that has the potential to sort of create a differentiated brand positioning in this category. And that’s what we really trying to do.
And second, I think India grows the best spices in the world. I think that is absolutely no doubt. Again not because I run now, a category of spices through our brand, but I think if you compare it, I think there’s a general consensus among chefs all over the world, among food connoisseurs, and enthusiasts that the flavor, the aroma, the density of oils, just the quality of Indian spices is phenomenal. And when that is there, I think it makes sense to help market the origin. Why can’t a Lakadong turmeric not be as popular as the Darjeeling first flush or a Kerala cardamom or a Telicherry black pepper be as popular as a black tea from Assam? I think it’s it all comes down to making that high-quality product available, consistently branding, it positioning it and just ensuring that there is trust and trust is built by just doing the right thing several times over and over right for several years. That’s really what we vision to do with spices. And I think if we can do that, I believe, Indian origin spices can really stand, gather a lot of real estate even in foreign retailers and of course most important in the minds of our mainstream consumers in these markets.
Aravinda: The Western market is an important focus market for you, isn’t it? When will you launch spices for India?
Bala: I think on a lighter note. I think, like our strategy, the 24 hours a day has also been consistent and that is not changed. So I think it is just a matter of, to be very honest, I think it just been a matter of focus. Like tea, right? It was always about when we will do India rather than if we will do India. And I think just give him the bandwidth, the depth of the market, and the impact we can potentially create with the time and the resources we have as a team. We just realize that it is more efficient and more effective to sort of focus on some of these markets first. And that’s really what we did with teas. And that’s exactly, you know, what we are trying to do with spices as well. But that said, I think, you know, once we are able to get some understanding we are able to create some impact and foreign markets. Of course, we will end up coming and launching in the India market also, hopefully soon.
Aravinda: Has the choice of people you’ve sought for brand endorsements and partnerships been about building trust? With spices, you have Vikas Khanna. What was the thought behind this partnership?
Bala: This is our first – I don’t even use the word commercial because Vikas is genuinely and truly a fan of Vahdam. He was our consumer even with teas and when he got to know about spices, he was like, we have to do this together and we sort of collaborated, even though there is a commercial collaboration to a small level there. But before that, till today, I think every endorsement right from Oprah [Winfrey] to Ellen [Degeneres] to Mariah Carey, Nicole Scherzinger very recently, these are 100% organic or revenue share partnerships where these more people who were fans of the brand and that’s why like I said. And we’ve been very lucky and fortunate to have been able to get our products to them. And them appreciating the brand, the story, and everything we are doing. And so that in tea, all these partnerships you see are 100% organic and I can say that on the record because they are. With spices, as I said, we were very sure that it is a category that is foreign to tea, right? Vahdam is considered as a tea brand and we’re doing that transition. So I think to sort of put that message out, we wanted a slightly higher impact, in terms of knowing the kind of people we can reach and the noise we can create. And that’s number one.
Number two, as I said, I think trust is very, very important, to the entire process, right? And a Michelin Star chef, a MasterChef judge is launching a brand of spices, which is native to his country, I think stays a lot somebody who’s been pretty much approached by any and every country and every spice company in the world, or at least from India.
And then third is, I think no better way, you know, to take Indian spices to the world with the man who’s actually, who’s been at the forefront and the flag bearer of taking Indian cuisine, Indian aromas, you know, to a modern consumer and to the mainstream audience in markets like the America right? Like the US. I think absolutely, you know, no brainer for us to work with him and you know and we hope you sort of continue this partnership for a long-term basis.
Q6: How will the spice segment expand? What’s in the pipeline?
Bala Sarda: I’m in the firstly very, very excited to be doing this. I think it’s an incredibly large opportunity. We are very, very passionate about taking India under a proud, ethical homegrown label to the world. And, you know, I think, and taking it to consumers, with spices, we can also get much more from a consumer’s day because you spend so much more time cooking and eating your food. So, I think that’s, that’s really very, very exciting for us. And, driving us to sort of do this and try and make this successful but from our from a product perspective like I said, right? We’re coming out with almost 20 to 25 single-origin spices in the first phase, that’s really what we’re doing. So the best of Indian single-origin spices, right? From your turmeric to ginger to black pepper, clove any, or every spices you spice you can think of. Right from Himalayan rock salt. A chili powder from some several, several spice-growing regions in India. And in addition, to that, in the next phase, you will see a lot of spice mixes and seasonings coming from our portfolio, which is basically a pre-made concoction. I think it’s gonna be the same spices we’re selling a single origin but you know for people who like their spices in a certain ratio as a certain concoction you know our spice blends and our spice mixes right from a chai masala to a lot of these Indian taste to even some very modern American flavors, you know because ultimately the application needs to be for an American or a European and a mainstream consumer to actually use it in, in his or her daily life. So you will see a lot of that also, coming from us. And lastly, it’s very important to position the category in a certain way I think for far long, I think, the spices category has not been disrupted, and the spice box is still a very boring part of your kitchen. We want to sort of enlighten that. We want to make it colorful, we want to add a lot of color, brand, and storytelling to that. And you will see you know, assortments and gifts and all of that also coming from our portfolio, like what we did with tea, to sort of just ensure that, consumers perceive this product in a much better way than they do today,
The dream rather is to actually create this platform of high-quality Indian products. Create an entity, create a brand that is really trusted, which is consistent, which is, which is as per global brands. Taking India as a brand and making that more trusted ultimately is really, what makes us very, very passionate. Obviously, it’s a great feeling when you see an Indian brand selling in a Bloomingdales or a Whole Foods Canada or a Sprouts Farmer’s Market, which is packed in India, from India. And I think that’s really what drives us every day. So, I think, like tea, spices are an absolute Indian category, and we deserve a global player creating impact in this category, not only in the US, not only in Europe, but pretty much all countries globally. Because like I said, 80% of the world’s turmeric comes from India. Most of the world’s ashwagandha comes from India. And these are, these are life-changing spices. These are spices, which can help you live a better life, better lifestyle, your mental health… So, there are also a lot of strong wellness connotations attached to spices like tea. I think it’s just very exciting for us to take this, from India to the world. And we will do everything it takes to make this available to consumers and hopefully make it worth their while.
Aravinda: There was tea, then there were superfoods, and now spices. Is Brand Vahdam a story that’s still being written?
It is, Aravinda. I think we’re probably in the second chapter, and probably hopefully it’s a longer book than we would also imagine. I think one step one step at a time. And I think for us, two critical goals are – how do we ensure everything we are doing in tea and how do we go deeper in that while at the same time we make spices a success. From our product market fit perspective, this is really what we are focusing on this year. And hopefully, you’ll see more coming out from our umbrella over the next year or so.
After a five-year hiatus, the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre is hosting its biennial Global Tea Forum on April 25-27 at The Address Dubai Marina Hotel, with discounted tickets now available. Saeed Al Suwaidi, Director of Agri Commodities at DMCC and a respected executive and technologist, shares his perspective on some of the issues to be addressed during the DMCC Global Tea Forum in April.
Caption: Saeed Al Suwaidi, Director of Agri Commodities at DMCC
Exploring Consumer Trends and New Market Opportunities
By Dan Bolton
The Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, founded in 2002, is the world’s largest and most successful free trade zone, now supporting 18,000 companies from a wide range of industries and sectors.
DMCC’s Tea Center, founded in 2005, is a global hub for value addition and the top tea re-exporter in the world. Tea is one of the most widely traded commodities worth nearly $50 billion, expected to grow by more than 40% this decade.
Dan Bolton: This year’s theme, Unpacking the Future of Tea: From Consumer Trends to New Market Opportunities, is compelling, given the upheaval the tea industry has experienced since the forum last convened in 2018. Will you share with listeners your perspective and describe some of the issues to be addressed during the DMCC Global Tea Forum?
Saeed Al Suwaidi: It’s amazing how everything in this industry is restarting, almost a reset. People are looking at it with fresh eyes. I mean, one of the things about this year is that it’s not an exceptional year. The past five years for us have been very different with COVID lockdowns, and everything that happened during those years changed us, and with that being said, there’s much eagerness for everything to resume almost as normal.
During the lockdown, what happened?
The main thing that’s happened is people experimented. Everybody had some tea in their cupboard and didn’t know all the nice things about it. So now, with everything open again, they’re more into experimenting with the world of tea. One of the things that we want to know is what we can bring to the table and what the world can bring to the table regarding tea and everything around it.
People call it the poor man’s drink because it’s accessible to everybody. It’s widely traded, and it’s over $50 billion worth of trade annually, and this is going up by at least 30 to 35 to 40% in the next ten years, so there are many opportunities. During COVID and right after COVID, everything that happened to the shipping industry affected everything, how things move and how tea moved. Now, it’s less economical for certain places to have tea than they would wish with the rising cost of shipping and the constraints within shipping. This is something that we want to touch on in the forum as well as to find the best ways of maneuvering trade routes. Our theme is, Unpacking the Future of Trade to see if we and everybody can add value so that everybody in the value chain benefits, and most importantly, end consumers anywhere to have something in their cupboard. So, we want to encourage the industry to see where there’s more value.
Dan: DMCC has undergone several changes in the past five years. DMCC’s tea center continued to expand its trade capacity as the world’s top tea re-exporter, opened a new coffee trading center, its first lounge, and weathered economic turmoil stirred by the pandemic while deftly managing logistics under duress. Will you update us on DMCC’s current initiatives? I heard that trading cocoa is under consideration.
Saeed: The DMCC Tea Center has been here for 16 years. We celebrated our 16th year this year, and the DMCC Coffee Center highlighted replicates that model in the coffee industry.
We went through the rough times of COVID just after its launch, but we are full steam ahead. Capturing the coffee business makes sense, especially logistics-wise. We’ve become a much better logistical center for these two commodities and are now looking at cocoa.
The cocoa industry is much more complex than coffee and tea, but we are looking at it seriously. You know, the majority of everything chocolate is mainly from West Africa. Our sister companies and logistics partners would help ease the movement of everything, chocolate, in terms of by-products, and so forth. We’re [also] looking closely into spices and tree nuts.
Let’s establish a center focusing on tree nuts and certain spices that can work together. We’re looking at things that won’t cross-contaminate and so forth.
We saw record growth last year, something that’s drawn our attention regarding forecasting for the future. We are considering expanding two or three-fold from where we are today.
Dan: DMCC brought you on board in part for your technological expertise, and I emphasize that because the future you are discussing is deeply interwoven with technology. Tell us a little about your background.
Saeed: All my entire career, I worked in technology, starting from Fortune 500 companies to government entities in the UAE, semi-government entities in the UAE, and American establishments wanting to get their foot inside the GCC or North Africa.
I have always had a big interest, funny enough, with both coffee and tea all my life. So, I visited tea estates in Asia and various establishments and brands of tea and coffee.
When I saw this opportunity, I wanted to be part of this amazing organization. It is and has been the number one free zone in the world for the past eight years and captured the number one spot of rough diamond trading in the world as well.
This means that they are the best, so of course, I wanted to be part of this organization. I saw the opportunities there, and what we can bring in with technology. You must be very fast in adaptation of movement and changing, and this was not the case overall with the tea industry. So yes, it’s the case somewhat of Dubai as we really adapt and change. But when it comes down to industries, like tea, especially, it’s not that kind of speed to change. One of the things that I want to change is how fast we can adapt to changes in this industry. I think when you look at this place specifically the tea business criteria, with a vision set by the Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ahmed Bin Sulayem, is to set up a tea center out of the tea growing regions to be a hub for tea, it’s not an easy task and also no one would think to have a center like this in a place like Dubai.
Not everybody will buy it, and there was a very clear understanding of the movement for this to be established. We saw exceptional growth last year, and in the Agri Commodities, we’ve seen more than triple-digit and quadruple-digit growth in certain verticals.
Dan: I believe the future you’re describing is deeply interwoven with technology.
Saeed: I agree. There’s a lot of things that happened over the last two decades, specifically in technology if we’re talking about coffee and tea; what’s happened in coffee is we see more and more, like, you know, and retailers are getting in touch with farmers, and this is due to technology.
You have all these traders in the middle, like, shrink. There’s more money going toward the farmers, and this is one of the better things happening today, both in tea and coffee.
In terms of price discovery, farmers anywhere, whether in Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, or China, you name it, didn’t know the price their commodity gets. Due to technology, they now know. You had all these traders in the middle who would trade, and trade and trade, driving up prices and leaving the farmers out of the equation. Today both of our centers are working with governments because this is one of the only places where you can still own the tea and stilt own the coffee and your other commodities; whether it’s transferred or changed, or whatever, you can still own it throughout that value chain, and you retain the value, and this can really make a difference for estate owners.
Dan: What have you most enjoyed about this position?
Saeed: There’s so much to learn from everybody in the industry. I love learning, and this is a continuous thing. I have that mindset every day from farmers. I literally have everybody within the value chain to see. So I know the strains of the state owners and people who grow the tea, and people who buy it, and how to get to the end shipping and all of this, I see everything from start to end, and then the end product goes up goes on the shelf so to see that, and to see what can we add to have better is for more people around the world to consume this amazing beverage.
People understand that coffee 20 years ago, you would have your regular coffee. Today, there is a specialty coffee and different ways of extraction and everything.
I think this is just happening right now in tea. We see a lot of companies that are into extracting tea into new formats, and we see new machinery and tea. When you look at the coffee side, you have all these amazing machines, and you have all these different ways and different cups and mugs and so forth.
But when it comes down to tea, you just have your regular cup. This is changing right now and we’re going to see this with bubble tea and all of these kinds of new trends, such as adding tea to different ingredients and so forth, where coffee can’t be. I think we’re just seeing the beginning of that.