• Revised TRA Standards Promote Tea Sustainability

    Growers worldwide adhere to the Tocklai Tea Research Institute’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards. The standards, based on decades of research and development, date to the early 1900s, with frequent updates. The latest update, titled TRA-Tocklai GAP-GMP Standard, will be available January 2023. The revisions are necessary to help growers and manufacturers improve soils, protect natural ecosystems, encourage diversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and establish a more climate-resilient tea industry, according to TRA. The new standards closely align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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    Joydeep Phukan discusses revisions to TRA’s ag standards to improve tea sustainability
    Joydeep Phukan, the Principal Officer and Secretary of India’s Tea Research Association

    New Tea Policy Emphasizes Quality Evaluation

    India is seeking ways to improve tea quality. In January, the Tea Research Association (TRA) will implement a unified agricultural standard for tea fields and factories. Introduced in September, the revised standards align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, explains Joydeep Phukan TRA’s Principal Officer and Secretary. He said that India’s tea sector is experiencing environmental and social changes that impact the livelihood of 10 million people, including 1.2 directly employed in the regulated tea gardens (RTG). Phukan has managed the research institute for the past 16 years. Before that, he was Assistant Secretary of the Indian Tea Association and Asst. Secretary at the Guwahati Tea Auction Center. He graduated with a degree in History and has a master’s in Management studies.

    Dan Bolton: Will you share some details about TRA’s new ag standards?

    Joydeep Phukan: Certainly. Tocklai is in its 111th year of non-stop operations. Over the years, we have come out with many different agricultural and manufacturing advisories, which have become the standard for the tea industry in India, and elsewhere.

    It’s two-way traffic. We learn from the practical problems faced by the industry in the field through our vast advisory network spread out in nine Indian states, our scientists work on that, and then we come out with solutions to the industry. These advisories are documented in the TRA Field Management Book, TRA Planters Handbook, and the Tea Encyclopaedia of TRA

    Since the advisories were spread out and extensive, we considered summarizing them into a few chapters to create a Bible for the industry. We began by collating the pillars of our advisories and condensed them into seven chapters aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals covering 2, 4, 13, and 15 of the SDGs

    Tocklai’s Good Agricultural Practices GAP and GMP are based on hardcore research on tea done by our scientists over the last 111 years. We added a few more chapters primarily to address the industry’s sustainability issues.

    GAP is a dynamic document; as we go ahead, we will add on things and discard what is no longer beneficial. We are doing it through a consultative process with the industry. A standards committee within our organization reviews our standards from time to time.

    “This is a dynamic document; as we go ahead, we add on things and discard which are not beneficial. We are doing it through a consultative process with the industry. A standards committee within our organization reviews our standards from time to time.”

    Joydeep Phukan

    Dan: How do these standards differ from third-party certification by organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, which introduced a new sustainable ag standard in June 2020?

    Joydeep: The main difference between our standards and those developed by third-party certifiers is that our standards are backed by scientific research carried out by our scientists. There is scientific evidence for every practical recommendation that works well in the tea industry.

    Sustainability has been a buzzword for the last 25 years. When you look at the Indian tea industry, you see that we at TRA Tocklai have been researching and publishing advisories to make tea more sustainable for more than a hundred years.

    Third-party certifiers bring in many things which are not based on their own work and or scientifically backed. Many certifications use a fit-all model where tea is put in the same basket as other commodities. 

    Initially, we are concentrating on the TRA GAP GMP standards for the regulated sector in India, but gradually we will include advisories specific to small growers so that there is one standard for the industry. Assam’s Government has mandated TRA Tocklai to provide R&D support to more than 200,000 smallholders in Assam.

    The Central Research Facility, occasionally referred to as the New Research Building, was constructed in the year 1999. It houses the major research departments of Biochemistry, Plant Physiology & Breeding, Biotechnology, Soils, Entomology and Mycology & Microbiology.
    The Central Research Facility, which opened in 1999, houses the major research departments of Biochemistry, Plant Physiology & Breeding, Biotechnology, Soils, Entomology, Mycology & Microbiology. Photo courtesy TRA.

    Dan: When farms and factories adhere to these standards, are they recognized for their effort? Do they receive a certificate attesting to the fact they adhere to TRA’s best practices?

    Joydeep: Yes. Our advisory network is spread out across Northeast India. They visit every TRA member’s gardens twice a year. They have to review each aspect of their operations against these standards. Once they are fulfilled, the gardens will be certified annually and receive a certificate for adherence to the adoption of best practices. There is no additional cost for the TRA members.

    Member estates of TRA comprise almost 90% of the organized sector in North India, covering nine Indian states in East and Northeast India.

    Dan: After inspections are completed, do growers and manufacturers receive a report indicating what they’ve achieved and what improvements to focus on?

    Joydeep: Yes. They will receive a report indicating how they have fared vis-à-vis the standards. If there are shortcomings, we will help them improve the estate’s compliance with the standards. Most of our members implement the TRA recommendations, and some go beyond, by implementing new ideas. We also plan to share the best practices followed by certain estates/companies within the code if the concerned company agrees to share the same.

    Dan: Gardens that conform to various standards may tick the boxes and demonstrate lowered emissions, but standards alone do not ensure better tasting tea. Will you discuss the importance of teaching growers how to improve the quality of their pluck and the fundamentals of manufacturing good tea?

    Joydeep: That’s a very good question. It is not enough to lay standards and certify them on paper. We must walk the talk to teach our members better plucking and manufacturing. Although the perception of quality differs, the basic standards of plucking and manufacturing must be maintained. At TRA we have organized hundreds of onsite workshops for small tea growers on good plucking standards. Parallelly, we are aggressively organizing cold weather and early weather workshops for all our member estates on the care they should take for better plucking standards. 

    TRA has a dedicated tea manufacturing advisory service. The TMAS team which consists of a biochemist, a tea taster, and a tea technologist will hand-hold tea makers in tea factories and train them on quality manufacturing. Apart from our model tea factory at Tocklai, we are coming up with another model tea factory at Nagrakata in Dooars for gardens to experiment with quality tea manufacturing. We are also considering training estates on Orthodox tea making which should see good demand amongst our industry.

    Soil plays a significant role in long-term sustainability, and the method of regenerative agriculture developed by TRA will go a long way in addressing soil health issues at a much lower cost.

    Tocklai Tea Directorate

    Dan: Truly sustainable production is profitable, which, due to today’s costs, demands the additional revenue generated by value-added tea, right? Will you talk about how India can add value to generate more revenue?

    Joydeep: Tea is a commercial business for everyone in the organized sector, including the small grower. To produce truly sustainable tea, you must be economically sustainable. Ultimately if the venture is not commercially sound, no one will invest the money to make a plantation sustainable.

    Indian tea is sold mainly as a commodity; accordingly, as each commodity has its own cycles, it also has its ups and downs. It’s high time tea producers see merit in their produce and market directly as a brand. Today we have many channels to sell our products and many consumers. The pandemic was a blessing in disguise, and many tea companies tried out their own selling and distribution platforms. We need to scale this up fast to have visibility across the digital platform.

    However, with all efforts, if we can’t increase tea consumption, these measures will not bear fruit. Attracting millennials and GenZ to drink more tea is crucial. The tea industry needs to have a well-thought-out plan and execute it meticulously to attract them.

    Interestingly, the young generation, whom we target to drink more tea, are conscious of the environment and like to experiment. They have a strong digital footprint. We from the industry need to act together to position our product with the right message. The young generation surely will pick up the threads and make tea their preferred drink. If the new generation feels for a cause or a product, money is not an issue for them. So that’s how we can get our value from the tea.

    Download: Tea Research Association Vision 2030

    Tocklai Tea Research Institute

    Tocklai Small Tea Growers Training & Research Centre, Jorhat, Assam

    Good Agriculture Practices (GAP)

    Agrotechnology developed by Tocklai is primarily based on GAP principles and implemented through a strong network that provides advisory services. The network covers all of Northeastern India. One area of research is optimizing process parameters for black tea processing. ECM (Environmentally Controlled Manufacturing) and Model tea manufacturing enable tea processors to achieve ECM objectives. Fertilizers are checked for the presence of hazardous substances before application, and recommended pesticides are sprayed on tea bushes to ensure that no pesticide exceeds the permissible limit of MRL (maximum residue levels). Meeting the regulatory requirements in domestic as well as global markets under Sanitation and Phytosanitation (SPS) measures under WTO are one of the challenges to be dealt with appropriately in the coming years. TRA research efforts need to be continuously focused on ensuring quality at the farm gate. Research data is regularly updated to help develop quality standards for conformance.

    Assam’s Proposed Tea Policy

    Assam’s chief minister has proposed financing several activities to further develop the tea industry in terms of quality, and valuation, not only in tea but other by-products like tourism. Group A initiatives offer incentives for all gardens. Group B initiatives are exclusively for small growers. Together they will help establish brand identity for the state.

    Similarly, the central government of India is also promoting quality, product diversification, and market access. These initiatives require substantial money to be allocated both by the state government and the central government.

    The focus is on quality evaluation and new markets, a combination that will re-energize the sector and make it sustainable.

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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.

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    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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  • Wild Orchard Regenerative Organic Teas

    Michael D. Ham, co-founder and president of Wild Orchard Regenerative Teas, describes in detail the chemical-free cultivation and multiple washings during the processing of the company’s award-winning teas. Ham explains that regenerative organic practices rehabilitate soil, capture carbon to help reverse climate change and result in a clean, authentic taste as nature intended.

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    Michael D. Ham describes the benefits of regenerative organic cultivation
    Cultivation takes into account health, biodiversity, and rehabilitation of the local ecosystem

    Wild Orchard is the First Regenerative Organic Certified Tea

    Jeju Island lies 130 kilometers off the southern coast of South Korea in the Korea Strait. Dormant for the past 5,000 years, Hallasan Mountain is a 1,950-meter volcanic wonderland of craters, cinder cones, and giant lava tubes that dominates the densely foliated island. Popular with tourists for its national park and scenic beaches, the island is also known for its tea.

    Wild Orchard sources all its tea from the 1000-acre MJS Tea Farm where the first of two million trees were planted in 1999. The nutrient-dense soil, gentle mists, and abundant wildlife led growers to plant tea seeds on hillsides that were not terraced or cleared of native plants. Irrigation is solely by rainfall. No fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are applied, and the soil is never tilled. The farm was certified organic in 2007, and the Wild Orchard brand was established in 2019. In May of this year, the brand became the world’s first Regenerative Organic Certified tea. It was selected by Noma, the World’s Best Restaurant, to be served on their NYC menu and will soon be available for sale at the Rare Tea Counter at Fortnum & Mason tea shop in London.

    Michael D. Ham: Our farm was established in 1999. At that time they didn’t know the term regenerative they just had the vision and mindset to create the cleanest, purest teas on a volcanic island that they felt was ideal for growing teas. So, they wanted to allow nature to do its work.

    They didn’t want to put any manmade inputs. So, to this day, no herbicides, no pesticides. No fertilizer, everything has been done through nature, all the irrigation is done purely by rainfall. And it’s really a testament to the philosophy that our teas were able to obtain Regenerative Organic Certification earlier this year, the first Camellia sinensis tea to have obtained that aspirational certification.

    We are living in a vastly different world than tea has grown in for centuries. Specifically, the demarcation line is the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of machinery, and fossil fuels. Today we’re living in a world where there’s massive pollution in our water table and in the air. And as you mentioned, tea is a bio remediator it absorbs a lot from its surroundings both under the earth in the soil and above ground. And so to be able to create a clean environment, for the teas results in a more authentic pure tea. That’s the philosophy that our farm has to be able to grow tea and living soil, greater nutrient density, more antioxidants, but also flavor and have that move all the way into the cup for the consumer to taste that its purest form. That’s really what regenerative is about in terms of the authenticity of tea.

    Sunrise over 6,397-foot Hallasan Mountain

    Dan: Tea readily adapts to its environment. If that environment has high amounts of lead in the atmosphere, toxins in the water, and a climate where the plants are alternately parched or flooded, the finished tea will reflect that in the cup. At Wild Orchard, tea coexists with other plants, which is not idyllic as plants must fight off pests and disease and struggle to establish a root system to deliver essential nutrients and minerals. Will you share with listeners some other aspects of regenerative cultivation?

    Michael: What makes our teas distinctive from a regenerative perspective is that we set the highest standards throughout the entire process of planting, growing, and producing our teas with the understanding that we are working under the providence of nature, which is key. We first plant by seed which results in a rootstock that goes deeper into the soil and enables the pulling in of more nutrients for a healthier tea leaf. Second, we do not till the land keeping the surface covered naturally to protect the soil ecosystem. This allows the microbiome in the soil to thrive which further elevates the quality of the tea. This is a key element of farming regeneratively. Third, we harvest only the minimum amount necessary, returning any byproducts to the ground to improve soil fertility, without the need for artificial fertilizers. It is all-natural, which again elevates the quality of the tea. Fourth, we do not apply any chemicals to the ground whatsoever. No pesticides, no herbicides, fertilizer, etc. We allow only nature to grow our teas – the sun, the wind, the rain, and living soil. So it’s very simple, but it’s very painstaking in the beginning to get to that stage. Lastly, we hand harvest our teas and we process them with the greatest care to deliver the highest quality teas to our customers.

    Dan: What techniques and technology do you rely on to make prize-winning teas?

    Michael: So, there are so many things that go into producing prize-winning teas, but if I had to choose one specific technique or method, I think that it would be that we wash our tea leaves four times, and not just with regular tap water. So we keep any equipment that comes into contact with the tea leaves clean. And our farmers are very conscientious about hygiene. So this might be the most basic of basics. But I think this is an extraordinary process that we have, I don’t know anyone else in the world that does this. And, of course, techniques and know-how regarding the various stages of processing tea need to be performed at a high level. But with first principles in mind that tea leaves need to be clean first and foremost, in order for the pure aroma of the tea leaves to reach the cup. And I think this mindset and vision for more farmers to grow teas, as nature has intended, and allow people to drink tea that tastes the way it should inherently, has led to Wild Orchard being honored with 15 awards at the top global tea competitions it’s an ode to the farmers and their vision just to let nature have the biggest impact in growing the teas.

    Dan: Can you really taste the difference?

    Michael: You definitely can taste it. I believe that judges can taste the authenticity of the tea, the way that tea should be tasted inherently. The best way to explain why that’s the case is because when you farm teas regeneratively, you are growing it in living soil, it’s pulling in more nutrients.

    Because the ecosystem is so clean with the biodynamic functioning of animals with the teas with the agroforestry component, everything is working in concert to elevate the quality of the tea. As you said, in monocultures, you’re just focusing on one. So it’s very, very limited in the ability to provide a tea leaf that’s optimal to the way that it should be grown the way it has been grown for thousands of years. So, when you taste conventionally grown tea, you will definitely taste elements of toxins, pesticides, and all these chemicals that should not be in or on the tea leaf. When it’s done regeneratively, you’re getting the most out of that tea leaf without any manmade elements.

    Dan: What did the International Tea Academy competition judges say about the winning teas?

    Michael: Well, we won Leafies in three categories. The green pan-fired was our first flush green tea. The judges described the aesthetics of the leaf before brew, after brew, the aroma and when they look at the taste, they really liked the authentic green tea taste.

    All of these regenerative elements in terms of growing the leaf and making sure that that core element of the Camellia sinensis non oxidized into the green leaf could come out in that taste. I think that’s really what did it the other two categories were our green tea scented tea, and are blended tea and those mix the green tea with fruit notes and things like oranges, lemons, strawberry fruit notes, and that’s a different type of tea. But once again, it adds another element and so the judges were also looking at similar characteristics, how it looked before brew after brew, and then the taste. So I think the regenerative way of farming tastes much more cleanly and purely, and that’s what the judges appreciated.

    Dan: What are the long-term prospects for regenerative-certified tea?

    Michael: Our regenerative certification is by the Regenerative Organic Alliance that was founded by the Rodale Institute. Many well known premium organic brands like Dr. Bronner’s and nature’s path. And so there’s a lot of weight or reputation behind this certification. They pretty much set the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare and farmworker fairness. Those are the three major components and you have to go through a robust auditing process took us two years to obtain and they spent about three, four days on our farm and auditor going through many, many elements through those three core pillars. And only when you achieve a base amount, can you qualify for Regenerative Organic Certification, and they have the bronze silver and gold level. So depending on how much you achieve in that audit and what standards you’ve you’ve achieved, you get these different levels of certification. But now, more and more brands if you go to the supermarket, you’re gonna start to see more regenerative out there. And it’s really the way I put it simply as it’s it goes beyond this simple organic certification because you’re focusing on the soil. You’re there’s also the animal component, a welfare component and the farm worker fairness so it’s really holistic. And it gives the consumer an idea that wow, this product went through extra lengths to provide or produce a product that is not only good for me but for the environment.

    Jeju Island

    So shifting the topic from price-winning teas to climate-smart teas. Recently, you reported on it, but well-respected tea brands such as Tazo and traditional Medicinals have stated that they are also committing to transitioning their portfolios to regenerative why is this important?

    There’s clearly an opportunity to make impact at scale. Studies show that regenerative farms are three to six times more profitable than conventional and the market for Regenerative products all be it in early stages now, continues to gain interest and grow. So if our industry starts to shift from conventional to regenerative, as we’re seeing in other sectors, we can have a tremendous impact on addressing global health and climate crisis. Regenerative practices will allow tea farms to be more resilient and protect smallholder tea farmers amidst the growing climate changes. So what’s the yield issue? Just this summer, you reported China’s extreme heat and its effect on tea farms. But if they had regenerative baked into their operations, they would have been more resilient and they would have had more yield. So in terms of the yield, you have to look at it in the context of today’s climate challenges and regenerative will allow the farmers not only to create a higher quality product or tea, they will be able to future-proof as much as possible, to the extent that they’re farming regeneratively to fight off against all of these floods and heat and all these climate issues that we’re facing on an ever-growing, you know, track each year.

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  • A Stake for Every Stakeholder in Tea

    “We changed one word in our charter to include every farmer supplying even a kilo of leaf to us. We decided that as a Public Benefit Corporation we are not only responsible for creating value for company shareholders but will also create value for all stakeholders. One percent of our top-line revenue goes directly to the farmers.” ??? Nishchal Banskota

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    Nishchal Banskota discusses how the Nepal Tea Collective benefits all tea stakeholders
    Omnichannel Marketing Strategy

    QR Codes Make Tea Easily Traceable by Consumers

    In 2015 after graduating college in the US, Nischal, who grew up near Ilam farming Nepal’s first certified organic tea garden, returned to open the BG Tea Bar, the first tea bar in Kathmandu. A year later, following a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake, he launched Nepal Tea, which has since grown in sales and reputation. Banskota says that he is committed to creating tech-enabled, transparently traded tea. His venture produces award-winning Himalayan teas, sustainably sourced and packaged, bringing jobs to the tea lands that pay double the prevailing wage. Teas are shipped directly to customers worldwide. Every hand-made package is labeled with a QR code that enables buyers to meet the growers at one of three farms. The omnichannel business earns high gross margins selling wholesale and packaged tea. One percent of revenue is reinvested in farming communities, and a tea sapling is planted for every order (10,000 in 2022). Banskota is currently seeking investors on WeFunder with a goal of $600,000. The money will be used to extend the brand to include organic botanicals, make the company’s supply chain more sustainable and construct infrastructure for visiting tea tourists. A three-year goal is to build a modern packaging and fulfillment center in Nepal. The campaign is nearing $200,000. The minimum investment is $250.

    In January 2022 we decided a crucial step towards our bigger mission in the tea industry was to covert our company to a public benefit corporation.

    Day one, when I started the company, it was much more than a money-making business it was a lot more about impact and how we can really help the producers, the farmers who are almost invisible to the consumers.

    My personal goal is to get 1 million farmers out of poverty within their generation and within my lifetime. So, I’m 30 now, and hopefully have enough years in my life to be able to get to that number.

    In the new charter we said we’re not only going to be responsible for creating value for the shareholders, we will also look forward to creating value for all stakeholders. So, we literally changed one word to include every single farmer supplying even a kilo of leaf to us. We then took our mission one step further, to put it into actionable terms so 1% of our top line revenue is directly going to the farmers themselves.

    I know; it’s a very small amount but that gesture will help all the people who supply teas to us to understand that they are not just suppliers, they’re partners in the business. The more we sell, the more we more they get. And the more they get, the more they are going to invest in creating better products. So we’re going to buy it at a better price and sell even more tea. At the end of the day, it establishes a cycle where they create value for us, and we create value for them. This leads to really sustainable relationships with the producers and consumers.

    We want to set the standard high and be accountable. Every single year, we’re going to publish on our website what we did, how we did it, and exactly what that impact was. So everything is going to be completely transparent, and traceable. We are making our lives difficult, in a way. We are doing all of this because we believe the tea industry has not been too fair to the producers and the farmers. And we want to change that.

    Dan: Nishchal, you were born in Nepal, and you’ve lived and worked on a tea farm for much of your life. Will you tell our listeners why Nepal is such a great place to grow tea?

    Nishchal: Nepal itself is the country of the Himalayas. The geography where the tea grows has a microclimate that is absolutely suitable for the production of high-quality teas. The winds blow down from the mountains and moist air from the Bay of Bengal creates a very volatile environment in which the tea plants really thrive. The variations in temperature make Nepal a very nice environment for the tea plants to generate rich flavors, and it’s not just that the tea plants are much younger, which also helps to create the distinct flavors for the teas that are grown in Nepal.

    One of the most interesting things that I have found is the passion of the tea maker — and the tea makers are young. When you think about tea makers, you think about years and decades of experience and all of that but one thing which is quite different in Nepal is that the tea makers are super young. In fact, the tea maker at our family farm is 22 years old. He’s one of the youngest tea makers in Nepal, and is not at all hesitant to experiment with what can be done to these leaves.

    They’re experimenting with a lot of different types of leaves, a testament to their commitment to quality are the awards these teas has been winning in many parts of the world. In fact, just yesterday, six of our teas, which were all made by these young tea makers won awards in the 5th AVPA Teas of the World contest. So there were six awards that were won by our geography.

    All in all the climate and pristine environment is ideal for the production of tea. These tea farmers all busy taking care of these tea bushes, just as they would their child. It is the young tea makers who are experimenting with the best way to create high quality teas aided by the fact that in Nepal the organic way of cultivation has been in place for many years.

    Dan: To realize your vision will take additional resources from outside investors, and ultimately, it will take an organization that is more capable of delivering results at scale, far more so than during the initial startup phase. You’ve done remarkable work over the last six years. Describe why it makes sense to bring additional investors on board. Will you also explain the funding mechanism so that others can help you to realize your vision?

    Nishchal: When my father started the first organic tea garden in Nepal, it was unheard of to use backyard kitchen gardens to grow commercial crops but slowly, slowly, a lot of people picked it up. Today, a combination of cash crops and food for the family are thought of as the ideal model, one that has completely transformed the community.

    I want to replicate that model as it is favorable for the whole country of smallholder farmers. It is will take a lot of investment, a lot of expertise, and a lot of young energy, to fulfill the dream of the collective.

    One of the easiest ways we have found to bring consumers together is to introduce consumers to the producers. What we have done is to connect consumers all around the world, inviting them to become investors to advance our dream.

    The Nepal Tea Collective is opening investments in the company worldwide. We chose an equity crowdfunding model to raise funds. To learn more visit WeFunder.com/nepalteacollective. Individuals can invest as little as $250.

    Our goal is to construct a fulfillment center in the southern part of the country, and be able to collect many different teas from many different geographies, on the hilly areas, and plateaus. The fulfillment center and warehouse will consolidate tea from many growers, store it properly, package it and generate employment and attract foreign revenue for the country. Modern fulfillment will enable growers to leverage the logistics through Amazon and Shopify to sell globally and create an identity for Nepal and Nepali teas

    I envision anybody living anywhere in the world can just go to our website and be able to order keys directly from the source and know where that is coming from, when was it plucked, and how it was made, who are the people behind these teas, and all of that kind of stuff.

    We want tea companies, we want tea lovers, we want anybody who drinks tea to become a part of this.

    We are already starting talks with people who want to see the impact on the ground. So, impact funds or non-governmental agencies, when all of us come together that’s when the beauty begins and really creates value for not just the tea industry. This would be a model for all the agricultural products coming out of the country.

    We’re setting stringent ambitions. We’re looking for at least 80% of our ingredient volume to meet regenerative organic standards by 2029. The remaining 20% are things like citric acid that aren’t necessarily covered by those standards at this time.

    Finally, and most importantly, we are working with our sustainability consulting firm, Pure Strategies, to measure this progress step by step. And we will be keeping our community updated on milestones, through our website and through our social pages.

    So, we know we owe those answers to our consumers.

    Download an Investors Pitch Deck

    Stories of all the wonderful people in the tea world. DM us so that we can feature you too!
    Curated by @nepalteacollective

    Humans of Tea

    Nishchal Banskota recently started a humans.of.tea page on Instagram to shed light on the people in tea, especially the farmers. “We bring their stories to bring to light. Please do send us a message if you’d like to get featured,” he says.

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  • Kenya Ups its Investment in High Value Tea

    Kenya is investing millions in its tea sector to generate jobs and boost foreign exchange earnings. Shortly after taking office, President William Ruto directed the Ministry of Trade to increase exports of value-added tea from 5% to 50% during the next five years. In October, he announced funding for a public-private processing and packaging facility in Mombasa and approved $6 million to increase orthodox production at 10 Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) factories. Kenya Tea Board CEO Peris Mudida writes, “Tea plays a key role in the socioeconomic development of our country. However, the tea industry’s full potential in Kenya has not been fully optimized due to low-value addition and product diversification levels.” The Ruto administration intends to achieve that potential.

     Listen to the Interview

    Tea Board CEO Peris Mudida discusses Kenya’s plan to grow its brand.
    Kenya Tea Board CEO Peris Mudida
    Kenya Tea Board CEO Peris Mudida

    Kenya’s New Tea Board is Energized and Able

    By Dan Bolton

    Founded in 1950 as an independent, public body responsible for developing, promoting, and regulating Kenya’s tea industry, in 2014, the Kenya Tea Board was dissolved in favor of a single Agricultural and Food Authority (AFA) housed within the Ministry of Agriculture.

    Peris Mudida, trained in the law, was named head of the AFA’s tea directorate in 2020 after serving six years as the ministry of agriculture’s tea regulation legal services manager.

    In 2021 the newly constituted Tea Board seated elected representatives of smallholder cooperatives and associations, factory operators, large producers, tea traders, and the Kenya Tea Development Agency – a private consortium representing tea farms and factories responsible for producing 60% of the country’s tea. As CEO, Peris works closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade and is the official promoter of Kenya’s tea industry worldwide. She spoke to Tea Biz during the North American Tea Conference in September.

    Dan Bolton: Will you tell listeners a little about the history of the tea board and your thoughts on its reinstatement as Kenya’s tea industry promoter and regulator?

    Peris Mudida: The Tea Board of Kenya (TBK) is mandated by the government of Kenya to provide oversight over the tea sub-sector. TBK is a new institution that came into operation in 2021 after the government made a policy change and brought back the Tea Board of Kenya, which existed previously up to around 2013.

    At that point, a decision was made by the government to consolidate regulatory institutions and the crops sub-sector in Kenya. And so the tea board was converted into the Agriculture and Food Authority. However, after about seven or eight years, a decision was made to reverse that and to re-establish the Tea Board of Kenya. So, the board of Kenya is a state corporation established under the Tea Act, passed in the year 2020. Broadly, the mandate is to regulate, develop and promote the tea sub-sector in Kenya.

    Building resilient communities is one of the first principles, and to address on-the-ground challenges with these experts and partnerships that already exist but are looking for more support from corporate partners like us.

    Dan: Will you share your vision for the tea board?

    Peris: Yes. The tea board of Kenya has a very broad mandate under the Tea Act to develop the sector, promote the tea sub-sector, and regulate the tea sub-sector. Kenya exports most of what it produces. Kenya is the third-largest producer of tea in the world and the leading exporter in the world.

    We want to ensure that the tea that we supply is produced in a sustainable manner and that it gets the returns that we desire. This is especially true for the producers, the farmers who toil on the farms but are unable to make a living. Tea is also important because of the foreign exchange that it adds to our country. So, we are looking at having an industry that meets the farmers’ expectations and the other value chain players in the tea industry, including buyers and tea corporations. We have other people who are involved in the value chain; they pack the tea and sell it. So, we are looking at having everybody get a fair return for whatever they do along the tea value chain.

    Dan: Our listeners share your love of tea, and they live in every corner of the globe, including all 73 tea-producing countries. What message would you like to leave them?

    Peris: My message to the tea consumers is that tea is good. So we want you to take more and more tea and not only more tea but more Kenyan tea. Kenyan tea is good tea, as you well know. It is produced in the highlands of Kenya, where the tea is grown in a natural environment. There is no application of any sort of pesticide. And so you can be sure as you take your tea that it is good for your health, and as you consume that tea, we’d also like to ask you to remember that producers of that tea also need a fair return so that as you buy the tea, that you also pay a fair price for the tea.

    See: Ketepa Tea Packers | Kenya Tea Development Agency

    The goal is to “enable tea consumers globally to distinguish Kenya tea brands and associate Kenya tea products for their quality and authenticity.”

    – Peris Mudida

    Kenya Expands its Orthodox Tea Capability

    Kenya is the third largest tea-producing country by volume, but most of its output is commodity-grade black tea. In 2021 volume reached 537 million kilos. Only a tenth of that total is orthodox processed whole and broken-leaf tea.

    Exports totaled 558,925 million kilos last year. In 2021 tea exports topped $1.36 billion (Ksh135 billion), which was 22% of Kenya’s foreign exchange earnings. The main export markets are Pakistan, Egypt, the United Kingdom, Sudan, and the UAE. Exports to the US are on the rise at 3,535 metric tons. Canada imported 1,086 metric tons of Kenyan tea in 2021.

    Tea exports account for 92% of total tea production. Domestic tea drinkers consume the remaining 8%.

    Seventeen factories are licensed to produce orthodox and specialty tea. Approximately 31.3 million kilos are grown west of the Great Rift Valley, and 15 million kilos are grown east of the rift (mainly by smallholders).

    In October, President William Ruto announced that the government would construct a modern common-use facility in Dongo Kundu to process and package tea. The public-private venture will add value to commodity offerings and expand the availability of orthodox black tea.

    Simultaneously the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) asked the government for Ksh800 million ($6 million) to expand production lines at 10 of its 12 orthodox tea factories. KTDA currently produces five million kilos of high-value specialty tea. White teas, for example, bring as much as Ksh7000 ($58) per kilogram. Purple teas are auctioned for Ksh2400 ($20) per kilo compared to CTC (crush, tear, curl) teas that sell for Ksh270 ($2.25) per kilo.

    Kenya sees opportunities in two markets. First, Africa’s new free agreement encourages neighboring countries to purchase packaged teas for domestic consumption. Kenya recently sent a large shipment of its Ketepa Pride national brand to Ghana, a first under the African Free Trade Continental Area (AfCFTA) pact. Kenya named Morocco, Mauritius, and Tunisia as potential trade partners.

    Expanding orthodox production also enables Kenya to compete better with Sri Lanka, which has seen a 20% decline in the output of premium Ceylon teas. Sri Lanka black teas sell for more than double the price of bulk black teas from Kenya. To accelerate production, KTDA increased subsidies reducing the cost of fertilizer from Ksh6,000 to Ksh3,500 with a target of between Ksh2,500 and Ksh300 per metric ton.

    Mudida says the Tea Board of Kenya is collaborating with state and non-state actors to develop and promote a strong Kenya tea brand. The goal is to “enable tea consumers globally to distinguish Kenya tea brands and associate Kenya tea products for their quality and authenticity,” she said.

    Kenya is not abandoning bulk production, writes Mudida. “We wish to clarify that it is government policy to upscale tea value addition progressively to enhance tea growers’ earnings. The government has not banned the sale of tea in bulk,” she said.

    Mudida anticipates a solid return on investment. 

    “We project that through these incentives, Kenya’s tea industry could generate about 80,000 new jobs and increase annual industry returns substantially,” she said.

    Kenya Tea Board CEO Peris Mudida agrees to coordinate Tea Masters Cup competitions

    Expanding the Brand: Tea Masters Cup

    The Tea Masters Cup (TMC), an international tournament for tea makers, announced the Tea Board of Kenya (TBK) will coordinate the country’s tea industry competitions to ensure smooth integration of the local tournaments into the international TMC competitions.

    Kenya is the first African country to join TMC.

    In a joint press statement, TBK CEO Peris Mudida and TMC Chairman Ramaz Chanturiya said the competitions are an important strategy to promote the tea profession, trade, consumption, and collaboration with relevant stakeholders both nationally and globally.

    TMC and TBK announced the partnership and launch of the competition during the International Tea Day Celebrations in May in Kericho.

    Chanturiya called the agreement an important milestone as TMC Kenya competitions will bring together thousands of experienced, creative, professional, and passionate tea makers of different tea cultures into a single authentic international competition system.

    The country looks forward to showcasing her finest premium teas and finest tea masters and look forward to TMC supporting Kenya adopt innovative approaches to global tea collaboration, enhanced tea quality, and trade,” write Mudida and Chanturiya.

    TMC was founded in 2013 and involves people engaged in tasting, preparing, and serving tea and tea drinks by professionals and amateurs in four different categories: tea preparation, tea pairing, tea mixology, and tea tasting.

    During the past decade, TBK has organized the Tea Recipe Competition to create awareness and boost tea consumption locally, with a progressive increase in tea consumption by locals witnessed from 2011 to 2021.

    “Tea Recipe Competition attracted Kenyans from all walks of life and resulted in a boost of local tea consumption from 20 million kilograms in 2011 to 38 million kilograms in 2021,” according to the joint release.

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