• Q|A Philippe Juglar

    Caption: Philippe Juglar, right, presenting AVPA award to Managing Director Chaminda Jayawardana, Lumbini Tea Factory, Sri Lanka

    The Paris-based AVPA (Agence pour la Valorisation des Produits Agricoles) is allied with tea producers globally. Recognition, professional education programs, and competitions build self-esteem and economic success that directs a larger share of the value chain to the country of origin. “This is why we cling to local transformation of agricultural products so that producers benefit from the pursuit of excellence,” says AVPA President Philippe Juglar. Juglar explains how competitions that exclude international judges in favor of local experts reveal that what the gastronomic world and what the professional tea world consider quality tea leads to some “very interesting differences.”

    AVPA President Philippe Juglar (Agence pour la Valorisation des Produits Agricoles)

    Philippe Juglar
    AVPA President Philippe Juglar

    How AVPA Elevates Origins

    Philippe Juglar is a partner and consultant at Agro Business Consulting & Development, a Paris-based consultancy focused on agrobusiness development and trade. ABCD helps clients increase revenue by adding tangible and intangible value. He has worked in Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Juglar was named AVPA president in 2005.

    Dan Bolton: Tea-consuming nations have many compelling reasons to support tea suppliers at origin. Name the most compelling of these reasons from the vantage of AVPA and describe your process of evaluating tea with French-only juries.

    Philippe Juglar : We are trying to create contacts between European distributors and possible suppliers in new countries. For instance new tea producers in Eastern Africa are absolutely unknown up to now. They have a new image. We want the French and European tea distributors to have contact with new countries of production and new producers.  

    The tea market is mainly global international companies or very large trading companies. They import the quality and the quantities they want.  

    First, we try to precisely define the parameters we want to judge, and we check that all our judges in the jury agree on the measurement of all those parameters. 

    Second, we group the products in homogeneous categories.  We don’t want to compare what is not comparable, but just to have a comparable notation for products that are seamlessly similar. 

    Third, very paradoxically, we wish not to have an international jury. Tasting is very hard to predict related to our culture. We want to have and to find out, the very interesting proof and for that a common language is very, very important. To try to say in your mother language what you feel is difficult but in a foreign language is nearly impossible.  

    Last, we try to compare what the gastronomic world thinks and what the professional tea world thinks, and I can assure you that we find very interesting differences. 

    Dan: Quality is visible to all. Color, pluck, and the precision of leaf preparation and style as is the absence of defects such as oxidation of the leaves. Taste is subjective, yet skilled tea tasters agree that certain teas possess exceptional characteristics. Please explain AVPA gastronomic approach in evaluating tea.

    Philippe Juglar

    Philippe: Do you know how we judge wine in France? The best one of a certain region? 

    The wine that mirrors the pattern of the wine of that region.  So you have an organoleptic profile for, for instance, Burgundy, and the best wine of this specific region of Burgundy is the one with a profile which is the nearest to the theoretical one, which is completely intellectual. 

    We never compare two wines from two different regions, that is nonsense.

    In AVPA we prefer a local transformation of the rural product. 

    First reason, to give a larger share of the value chain to the country of origin.  

    The second reason is to obtain exceptional qualities. When the processing of the agricultural product is made by the grower himself or the nearest possible from the grower, then you get exceptional products: You change your grower into apassionate, dictator of his own product, and his reaction is completely different. There is no discussion. You just want to have the best with the best practice.  

    The third reason is that in producing countries you now have emerging markets. Why import from America or from Europe?  

    Tea is, by definition, processed in growing countries, which may be the reason for those exceptional teas you have in China or in Japan because they have processed their own teas for thousands of years.  

    Dan: Consumer preferences power markets, AVPA educates and helps inform tea selection by consumers. Will you share your thoughts on the importance of traceability and delivering a fair price to those at origin.

    Philippe: Traceability for me is very, very important because what the consumer is looking for is to know the family, the region where the product is coming from. Nowadays you have a code, a picture of the very farm where the product has been grown. That leads to a notion, you know perfectly which is a geographical indication.  

    A lot of these small producers have no financial means to get a brand or a trademark, but they can get a geographical indication and collectively capitalize upon it (that’s the way we do it in Italy or in France or maybe in Japan). 

    Very good products are known by their geographical indication and a geographical indication is a way to get that intangible value, which will transform the lives of the group. 

    As far as fair trade prices for me, it’s a very, very difficult notion. I don’t believe that you built a regular commercial relationship based on the fact that one in the deal is a poor guy.  

    I saw it very well in coffee: If I am poor, I can sell my coffee. If by selling my coffee I become rich, I cannot sell it anymore.

    And the second problem: What is a fair price? The cost of living is not at all the same in Sri Lanka, in China, in Colombia or in Canada.  

    So the notion of a fair price is a concept developed in developed and consumer countries.

    Frankly speaking, deep studies for coffees show that over $1.00 gained by the fair trade logo, 90% of that stays in Europe.  

    I prefer to help the farmer to get a natural good value by the quality, and by the fact that his brand or the geographical indication is reviewed by the consumer. This is better than by an act of charity.

    Juglar presents 2018 tea award to Chaminda Jayawardana, director at Lumbini Tea Estates, Sri Lanka

    Competition Tea

    By Dan Bolton

    Tea competitions that “speak” for their respective markets are great for the industry. In the tea lands, skilled growers and tea makers can infinitely adjust their pluck, style, and grade for export but first, they must understand market preferences. Respected annual contests such as the Emei Dah Pan Competition in Taiwan and the Lu Gu Farmers competition, which dates to 1976, are a model for peer review but in France AVPA judges companies from around the world for excellence “based on gastronomic rather than standardized refereeing.”

    Read more…

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  • India’s Earth-Friendly Tea Factory

    Jalinga Tea Factory
    A worker a Jalinga Tea Estate in South Assam making biomass pellets from tea waste to fuel tea dryers

    India’s first carbon-neutral tea estate is constructing the country’s most sustainable tea factory.

    Contractors at the Jalinga Tea Estate in South Assam, India’s largest organic tea grower, will complete India’s first zero-emission tea factory in July. With a capacity of 900 metric tons, the solar-powered factory is a large-scale model of efficiency using pellet-fired dryers, improved composting, biochar, and biomass gasification. Jalinga is India’s only Soil & More Impacts certified CO2 neutral estate.

    The factory is jointly financed through the Jalinga Climate Tea Research Foundation (JCTRF), a partnership between Jalinga Tea Estate and Atmosfair, a German non-profit committed to reducing CO? emissions by promoting, developing, and financing renewable energy projects in more than 15 countries.

    Jalinga Tea Factory
    Jalinga has produced organic tea since 2004 at this organic certified factory.

    Patrizia Pschera, Atmosfair’s Manager of Climate Mitigation Projects, writes that Jalinga “is making great efforts to minimise CO2 emissions and to make tea cultivation sustainable.”

    JCTRF is developing and testing climate-friendly ways of growing and processing tea while promoting adaptation to changing climate conditions, she explained. “The aim is to establish a self-sustaining concept for the climate friendly and ecological cultivation of tea that can be transferred to tea gardens all over Assam,” according to Pschera who authored a case study on the project published on the Atmosfair website. 

    Pschera praised the estate for “making well thought-out and far-reaching changes to its production, which goes further than buying CO2 neutrality through certificates.”

    In May, Atmosfair will visit Jalinga with reporters and a camera team from ZDF, a German TV channel making a documentary.

    Jalinga Director Ketan Patel said the factory is half-finished and would be complete with solar panel installation by July. “It will run on 100% biomass pellets and briquettes and replace coal completely. Electricity will be generated through solar panels,” he said.

    The factory will cost €300,000 ($360,000) to build and equip; an investment split equally between Atmosfair and Jalinga.

    “This is my most passionate endeavor to date,” said Patel, a long-time advocate of Earth-friendly endeavors on the 650-hectare estate.  Jalinga is a third-generation family business farmed organically since 2004. In 2018 Jalinga Tea Estate received the North American Tea Conference’s “Sustainability Award” presented annually.

    Low emissions cook stove

    The estate has adopted several climate-friendly social initiatives. Workers are supplied low-emission cookstoves instead of using firewood to improve air quality within dwellings, Patel explained, a simple innovation that reduces deforestation and improves the health of workers and their families.

    “Jalinga is a demonstration site, we intend to commercialize the technology and share it with the whole tea industry,” said Patel.

    “Atmosfair will look at the carbon emissions in the factory and develop carbon credits and take these back into the EU. They sell these carbon credits to airlines, government, etc.,” he said, adding, “It’s a win-win situation for the industry and environment.”

    Pellet-Fired Dryers

    The Indian government has the mandate to cut carbon emissions. One of the biggest problems in the industry is the reliance on coal to fuel dryers. Burning fossil fuels leads to the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. The availability of coal is also an issue. Coal mining is now illegal in Meghalaya, raising costs and making coal less available. Patel said that coal leaves a residue on tea plants, soot that is not suitable for human consumption.

    Jalinga will rely on tea waste, an excellent fuel when converted to biomass pellets. Prunings, waste leaves, and grass from weeding have relatively low ash content and generate 20 MJ of energy per kilo.

    “Many crop residues remain unused every year. Their decay in local dumps produces the greenhouse gas methane. At the same time, tea plantation operators dry the tea leaves with coal, releasing CO2. The JCTRF will test how plantation operators can use a pelleting machine to compress crop residues to use them as fuel instead of fossil coal,” said Patel. “We will be doing extensive research on climate-friendly ways to produce tea, both in the plantation & the factory so that the whole chain can lead to zero carbon tea production,” he said.

    Toward Carbon Zero

    The garden is also doing extensive R&D on a carbon removal program that will drastically improve soil fertility, explains Patel. Jalinga has been using compost from a special composting method (Novcom compost) in combination with manure to fertilize the tea plants for more than 15 years.

    “We are continuously trying out new ways of creating compost with green matter available in the estate. We have an in-house lab that tests the compost, compost water, and soil regularly for microbial growth, microbial diversity. Nitrogen content is also measured off-site,” he said.

    In a Facebook video, Patel explains that Jalinga follows the three pillars of climate-smart tea:

    • sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and income
    • adopting and building resilience to climate change
    • reducing and removing greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions

    “Our policies are aligned with the 17 goals developed by the United Nations that aim for a better and more sustainable future for all,” he says.

    Jalinga supplies private-label tea to more than 150 5-star hotels with exports to the UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and soon Russia, Australia, and Japan.

    Next up is a brand launch.

    Meeting the India Tea Board mandate to produce earth-friendly tea at a profit while enhancing India’s ability to market quality tea ? Jalinga is leading the way.

    “Currently tea needs a quarter million metric tons of Nitrogen from non-renewable methane; 138,000 metric tons of Potassium from fossil sources and 27,500 metric tons of Phosphorus to dig from fast-depleting reserves. Conventional farming has the tools to meet demand, but supplies are fast running out. Peak phosphorus comes in 2030,” according to Nigel Melican, founder Teacraft.

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  • A Tea Suited to Fine Dining

    Copenhagen Sparkling Tea
    Three alcohol and two non-alcohol blends offer mixologists new options.

    Sparkling Teas are Nicely Suited to Gourmet Dining

    Jacob Kocemba, a Copenhagen-based sommelier credited with creating a new genre of low-alcohol teas has produced a range that’s elegant, contemporary and interesting.

    It all started when Kocemba was head sommelier at a restaurant in his native Denmark. His head chef requested a wine to pair with a new dessert for the next day. It was a dessert that used an expensive French strawberry.

    “In my wine cellar I had 1,700 wines,” says Kocemba, “but none of them matched the dessert.” He decided to step away and sleep on it. The next morning, there was still no wine he was happy with. So he went to the pastry chef, tasted each ingredient that was going into the dessert, then tasted them all combined. In a moment of inspiration, he stared for a moment at his tea shelf and saw many possibilities. That night he created a drink with tea that was an unexpected success that became special but not yet finished.

    “Someone introduced me to carbon dioxide. I had every fifth weekend off, and started working with it,” says Kocemba. In 2011, a couple of years after his first forays into tea, Kocemba started the Kocemba Sparkling Tea Company. Three years later, he was back working as a manager in a Michelin-starred restaurant. But evidently, he could not leave the story of sparkling tea incomplete. So in 2016, once again, he quit his job to pursue his work with sparkling tea. In 2017, he partnered with Bo Stan Hansen to launch Sparkling Tea Co. in Copenhagen. 

    Kocemba talks about sparkling tea as one does of wine or champagne. It’s a category unto itself, with plenty going for it. But is it for the wine lover or the tea devotee? Both, says Jacob. “You will find a lot of links to the tea, you will recognize it as a tea drinker. Others will recognize the balance and sweetness and acidity, depending on what they are familiar with.”  

    The sparkling teas made by Kocemba are carefully crafted. Take for instance the BLÅ, a non-alcoholic tea, and one of the most popular teas in their range. It’s made with a whopping 14 teas, including an Earl Grey, the Lady Grey, a Fujian tea, both green and black teas from Assam, a Darjeeling, and an Indian jasmine tea — all organic and single-origin.

    Each tea is extracted at different temperatures. “Just like champagne,” says Jacob. 

    Sparkling Tea offers two non-alcoholic and three alcoholic variations. Vinter is based on chai. Kocemba’s inspiration was Glögg. “In my opinion, it tastes like shit,” he confesses. But rather than dismiss it, he set to ask how he could translate the flavors into something drinkable. The result was Vinter, with the warm hit of spices from chai, that are joined by notes of bergamot oil from an Earl Grey. 

    Without doubt, Kocemba’s teas are complex. He uses from 6 to 13 teas to achieve the desired outcome. If white tea brings the velvety texture, green is sought for depth and umami while black tea lends a backbone to building layers. The blended teas are bottled with white wine or grape, chosen for their natural sweetness, and to enhance the flavors of the tea. A sparkling tea, is served chilled, in a champagne glass. 

    In 2019, Kocemba and Bo created a private label for the hallowed Fortnum and Mason. Jacob narrates an interesting story of how that came about. “One of the employees of Fortnum and Mason followed us on Instagram. He liked us. We were in London and wrote them a mail asking if we could drop by. They were stunned at how we look at tea.” Jacob created two non-alcoholic sparkling teas based on their teas, both still in production. The brand lists this as the most innovative product in their 300-year history! 

    It brought them attention and visibility, but Kocemba is not in a hurry to chase numbers. “We want to build this category,” he says. It is a difficult product to produce, evidently demands deep understanding of flavors and a lot of skill and precision. Jacob admits that it’s not an easy genre to propagate because of the craftsmanship it requires. At Sparkling Tea, he still makes all the bottles, with a batch taking 6-8 weeks to produce. 

    It is a category that offers plenty to both wine and tea drinkers. Adds Bo, “Both will experience a completely new and innovative way of enjoying tea, which broadens the use of tea and makes it relevant at even more occasions.”

    Now, that ought to be reason enough to carry a bottle to the next dinner party.

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  • Q|A Supriya Sahu

    A money-losing federation of small grower co-operatives in Tamil Nadu, the largest of its kind in India with a history dating to 1965, languished for decades before Supriya Sahu emerged as a leader with a singular message: produce tea that builds the lives of farmers and a better future. “That’s our ambition, to transform an organization that was a sleeping giant into one that can show the world that a small growers’ organization can be the best among the best,” she says.

    Supriya Sahu, managing director of INDCOSERVE in Tamil Nadu

    Tasting Room
    Tea tasting at INDCOSERVE

    Awakening a Sleeping Giant

    Supriya Sahu arrived in the Nilgiris in 2019 to head INDCOSERVE, a cooperative of tea farmers started by the government of Tamil Nadu. In less than two years, she has turned this 55-year-old loss-making cooperative into a profitable one. INDCOSERVE’s 30,000 small farmers and 16 tea factories produce 14 million kilos per year, with a newly launched retail range. We talk to Sahu about how she has pulled this ambitious and audacious plan that can well serve as a blueprint for small growers across the country.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: This is your second deputation in the Nilgiris. When was the first one? And how did the second one come about? What did you do between these two deputations to the Nilgiris?

    Spuriya Sahu: The first one was 20 years back, between 1999-2002, when I was posted as the Collector of the district. I worked for the government of India for almost 10 years. I worked mostly in the ministry of information and broadcasting where I looked after the policy aspects of broadcasting, basically the licensing of the television channels and community radio and content regulation on television channels, et cetera. Those were my earlier assignments. After that, I was posted as Director General, Doordarshan. After competing 10 years, it was time to do something at the grassroots. Tamil Nadu government was kind enough to post me here because there was an opportunity to work with the farmers. So having worked at the policy level for a very long time, I think it was very important, interesting to touch base with the ground reality to see what’s happening in the field.

    Aravinda: When you took over managing INDCOSERVE, where was it at? What did you inherit?

    Supriya: Basically it’s like a sleeping giant. That’s what I’m telling my team all the time. That it is like a sleeping giant and we are awakening it slowly. It has a huge potential and it could be a game changer in the tea industry. I am saying this because of many reasons.

    One, I think our greatest strength is that we are a cooperative. It is a democratically elected institution. INDCOSERVE is not headed by officers, but by farmers themselves. How many organisations can boast of that? The chairman of INDCOSERVE is a small farmer himself. We have 16 factories. Each factory has a board and the board is headed by a small farmer. How does it help? It helps because then they have a direct role to play in whatever they do. Almost all these small growers have been with us for more than 20 years, 30 years; we are doing enrolment of new members, which is a continuous process.

    If profitable, as a very large player in the sector, we can be a game changer for the tea industry. Because we can set standards and benchmark us, which we were not doing earlier. With all due respect to my colleagues before me, I think most of them were holding the position as an additional charge. They were managing it remotely, sitting at Chennai or elsewhere. You did not have such a senior officer managing it from the headquarters. And that makes a lot of difference because you are there 24 by 7 to handle the affairs of the institution.

    Aravinda: How is INDCOSERVE set up?

    Supriya: It’s a cooperative federation. There are 16 factories affiliated to us. INDCOSERVE was set up by the government in 1965. Then the first factory was inaugurated at Kundah. Over a period of time, several factories have come up. We have about 30,000 members, 30,000 small tea growers who are members. That makes us one of the largest tea co-operative federations in Asia. And of course the largest cooperative federation in India. Because you have the bought leaf factories, you have STGs.

    If you look at the North Indian tea sector, it’s mostly estates. There are some small growers also, but they are not affiliated in a cooperative structure. Whereas in South India, it is mostly the bought leaf structure, but like a federation people coming together, working for themselves, this may be the only one in the country.

    Aravinda: The cooperative model is challenging. What were INDCOSERVE’s challenges?

    Supriya: We had several brainstorming sessions with our small growers. I also started something called open house where every Monday, any small grower can drop in here.I wrote about 30,000 letters to small growers, saying that I’m here to serve you. Here is the number to my office, my office address, my email. Please tell me what shall we do. That letter was also very emotional because I also wrote to them as the previous district collector who served them 20 years back. I have that connection with the people of this district.

    We had several rounds of discussions in the field, and then we identified several challenges, which we have documented. The most important challenge was that INDCOSERVE could never emphasise on quality of our teas. We were not even known. Nobody knew about INDCOSERVE as a brand, as an entity.

    Now maintaining quality of tea leaves is a biggest challenge because we are not like a big estate where people can just ask their labourers to pick two leaves and one bud. Here, farmers just pick the leaves and bring it to us. We did not have leaf supervision standards in the factories. That was the biggest challenge we identified. But then, how do you make sure that 30,000 farmers understand how important is the quality of leaves? How do we make them understand that the quality of the leaf has a repercussion on the quality of the tea that we make.

    We did several demonstrations telling our farmers that when you bring this kind of a leaf, this is the tea you produce. We launched something called as a mission quality, which was at three levels: what we will do at the INDCOSERVE level, the factory level and the grower level.

    We started from the grower level. We have about 200 leaf supervisors. They are the people from the community, about 20-30 of them with each factory. Their job is to collect the leaf from the growers bring it to a collection centre, or the grower brings it to the collection centre. The transportation vehicle brings it to the factory. We trained all our leaf supervisors. That was the most critical because whenever a farmer brought the leaves, they were able to demonstrate, that you give this leaf, this is what we will produce. I would say about 55% to 60% of the leaf quality has improved dramatically, thanks to this kind of an interaction which we did at the grower level.

    Then we also had several hours of meetings where we trained small grower representatives. One interesting thing in the Nilgiris, here the Badaga community, who cultivate land, who are the main supplier of tea, is a very cohesive, a very tight knit community. In fact, the entire village is like a family. If they see a value, they will tell everybody in their community to follow it. It’s a discipline, it’s coming together, it’s a team work. So that really helped us.

    At the factory level, they did not have any standard operating procedures at all, no SOPs were in place. We consulted private bought leaf factories. We consulted some private estates like Chamraj. We learned, we went to them, we took our teams to see how a private sector company operates. And it was a huge learning. We took our MDs, we took our Chairman … it was an eye opener. Because they saw that the factories were so clean, so hygienic, so well maintained; packaging was so good, marketing was fantastic. They felt we can do it. So we introduced SOPs, we introduced monitoring of the liquor, we appointed quality officers. We appointed a Chief Quality Officer at the INDCOSERVE level. And at the factory level, we appointed five quality officers monitoring the quality of teas across the factories. They’re all experienced people who have worked in the private sector for a very long time.

    At INDCOSERVE level, we have introduced a weekly and a weekly internal certificate mechanism. We give an internal certificate with quality grades. There is a healthy competition to get the A quality, because we have told them that those who will get the maximum number of these certificates will be eligible for an annual award. We are introducing an award system to incentivise the factories, as well as the MDs.

    These were the major things that we introduced as far as the quality, but then I can go on talking about it because there are many things that we did, in marketing, in building a brand and things like that.

    Aravinda: Just to go back a bit, when you wrote those 30,000 letters, did you get responses from the people?

    Supriya: Many people did. About 35 or 37 called me to say, you have to do this, our factory is not operating at the optimum capacity. Their feedback was so good, so precise. They knew what was happening in the machinery. Many people also said that the tea maker was not good, or that the staff were not paying attention.

    They also had an issue with non settlement of their dues. In fact, that was another major reform, We were not announcing the base price of the green leaf, which means if I am a farmer, I won’t know much money I will be paid upfront. We started announcing the price on first of every month. The farmer knew if I supply my leaf, I will get this. He or she was able to compare it with the private factory.

    We were paying much less than the price determined by the tea board of India. That was not instilling the confidence. I think most of the grievances were attached to this, that they were not getting the base price determined by the Board.

    Many of my factories were making a loss. We took a calculated risk in ensuring that we give the price determined by the board, to be on the right side of the law, and because it’s their right. I’m still happy to say in the last one year, except maybe for two months, we have been able to pay either the tea board rate or above.

    We got more leaf. We’ve been able to operate our factories at an optimum level. It built the confidence of growers in the organization.

    Kattabettu Tea Factory
    Kattabettu Tea Factory

    Aravinda: Was there infrastructure upgrade to the factories?

    Supriya: Most of our factories are 30 to 40 years old, some as old as 50. No upgrade had happened and only some machineries had been upgraded. There has not been an integrated upgrade of the machinery. We have got an upgradation plan as well as funding support from the government of Tamil Nadu and NABARD, under a scheme called as the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund. We have got about INRs 18.5 crore. We are renovating five factories which in the next six months will be state-of-the-art factories.

    Aravinda: What makes up INDCOSERVE’s product portfolio?

    Supriya: So we introduced the Bedford (named for the famous neighbourhood in Coonoor), BlueMont, Honey Hill, Marlimund, which is the local lake here. We introduced about 11 new varieties of tea. Earlier, we had 3, which we are supplying in the Public Distribution System (PDS) system, all three were dust. We just used to sell it through auction centres. For the first time we introduced leaf tea. That market we were not tapping. Plus we came out with a niche product, which is under packaging right now, the Nilgiri kahwa. We experimented, we have patented it. It has green tea, it has almonds, it has got saffron, it has elaichi (cardamom), laung (clove), and it has got rose petals. So now we are in the process of packaging it and bringing it out. So likewise, we are in the process of making a Nilgiri-Madurai jasmine, a mint tea, a masala … these are some of the varieties which are coming soon.

    Aravinda: Why the need to create a brand for INDCOSERVE and not just continue on the auction route?

    Supriya: We realized during our field assessments that we were a hundred percent dependent on the supply in the PDS. We are the largest supplier of teas in the PDS system of the government of Tamil Nadu. That makes us the largest supplier of tea in PDS anywhere in India because we are the only state where our teas are available in ration shops. We supply about 2,000 tons of tea annually through 30,000 shops of the government of Tamil Nadu. That’s our main business, that’s our bread and butter. It’s about 200 tonnes a month. It is very challenging, but then that gives us a very nice market to our famers because the tea that we supply in the PDS is not free. People have to buy it. It’s only an outlet that the government of Tamil Nadu has very kindly provided.

    But our factories were making losses. They did not explore other avenues, newer markets. They were quite content within the space that was made available to them. They were also bringing the tea to only one platform, Tea Serve,  The tea market is volatile; we were vulnerable. Therefore there was a need for us to kind of explore other avenues. Why not explore selling packaged teas, that can be displayed on the shelf. If you want to sell, you have to create a brand.

    We opened the Indco Tea House. We have two now, one at Kattabettu and another at Bedford. We are opening four in Chennai, in the metro stations. We have launched the tea trucks, we are calling them as tea vandis, a tea and a snack shop. This is again a very unique concept coming from a cooperative federation. They are very beautiful vehicles. Five vehicles are already operating and 20 more vehicles are joining our fleet in next three months. They are in Botanical Gardens and Doddabetta, those locations. The new vehicles will go outside the Nilgiris too. They are very popular with tourists because apart from what people want, they also serve wholesome food like thennai mururku, payasam made of samai rice. The local whole foods is also being used, which is healthy and nutritious. And we have partnered with the local Toda tribal group to operate these vehicles.

    Our dream is that we should be like Cafe Coffee Day chain or Starbucks. Why can’t we, a home grown outlet, be like that?

    INDCO’s Tea House

    Aravinda: The shift to making leaf tea, how did that go down with the factories?

    Supriya: I must say that it is much more easy to convince local farmers, and it was easier to convince our growers then to convince the officers. Because I think they have a vision which is much more far reaching. It was not very difficult to convince them because leaf was not selling at all because South India is mostly dust market. So you will find that the dust used to get picked up, but the leaf would not sell or sell at a very low rate.

    Thanks to these efforts, with leaf tea, we almost doubled our turnover in one year. We have almost doubled our farmers’ income. Out of 16 factories, except three, everybody was making loss in 2018-19. Last year, except three, everybody has made profits.

    Another thing we decided to do, which is the game changer for our organization, is we have gone ahead with the international certifications like fair trade. Our fair trade audit got concluded just now. We will know in a week’s time about the audit outcome. Outcome is not important. What is important is the process. We have three of our 16 factories who got trustea certification for the first time. When they went through the process, our farmers and our officers looked at our factories. They looked like they were bombed, they were so dirty with microbial infections, with  people not conscious about the cleanliness, the hygiene, the workers safety, the workers, rights.

    Now all our factories have workers restrooms, excellent toilets, all newly constructed or renovated, clean drinking water, safety gears, boots, shoes, and fire safety.

    When they went through the process, I would say it is an internal journey.

    Why should a government body always be referred to as not producing good quality tea, inferior, not clean? We want to break all these stereotypes. So we have established one model at Kattabettu where the entire factory is better than a private factory, and with our own money.

    When we have also eco-restored the factory, that is another futuristic area we are going to, where we have planted sholas, grasslands. We have created an eco-center within the factory saying that we are located in a biosphere and are responsible for the ecology.

    We have demonstrated to our officers and to our farmers, that, look at it, you have done it. Your organization has done it. So why not others? And others are coming and doing it.

    We have set up teams. There were hardly any people here. We have a separate marketing team. We have a quality team. We have a technical team who looks at all these aspects. We have appointed an Environment officer, somebody who will look at the environmental aspect of our factories. We burn wood which is not good. We need to find alternatives. We are looking at LPG to have the gas-fired factories. We’re looking at the options, like solar. One of our factories at Kaikatti, at converting into a completely solar integrated roof system, making it a carbon neutral manufacturing unit.

    Aravinda: Are you still using the Tea Serve auction platform?

    Supriya: Tea Serve was set up in 2000. An internal study conducted pointed to some bias in selling our teas. There was no electronic platform at that time. Tea Serve was the first electronic auction platform in India. Another reform we brought was on Tea Serve. Tea Serve was operating on outdated software and we were not aligned to the all-India software of the tea board. As a result, our market was limited only to some 15-20 buyers. We migrated to the software platform of the tea board.Now we are at par with any software platform. Earlier we were not taking our teas to any other auction. Today, instead of one, today, we are selling at five auction centres. We are at Kochi, at Coimbatore, at Coonoor auction centres; we are also part of their new experiment with the Japanese auction system. Within a year, we quickly moved over from a very archaic and old system at which we were operating to a dynamic platform and we are aligned with everybody else. Whenever we find that we need to balance the market, we can use this platform. So strategically, I think it’s good to have Tea Serve, but it is not good to confine ourselves only to it.

    We have an all India platform available to us. Definitely our teas are fetching much better than ever before. The average price of tea was never more than INRS 62 to 65. Now, it is never below INRs 100. As a result, we have been able to pay a historical price to other farmers when we paid them in the month of September – 28 rupees per kilo of green tea leaf, which is the highest ever in the history of INDCOSERVE, thanks to all these initiatives being taken.

    Aravinda: Are you making more leaf or more dust tea?

    Supriya: We make about 14 million kilograms of tea every year, all grades of tea, leaf and dust. We adjust according to the market. Whenever the leaf prices are more, we can tweak our manufacturing process to make 60% leaf and 40% dust. All these things have been brought into the system now. So there is a market consciousness, market intelligence.

    Aravinda: Are you making green teas?

    Supriya: Not yet, but our factory is getting ready to make orthodox and orthodox green teas. We were not even making orthodox until now.

    Aravinda: Is India the market or is export also part of the plan?

    Supriya: Export is definitely a very big thing on our agenda this year. If we are looking at improving our farmers’ income, if we really want to play an important role in their livelihood, improving further their livelihood opportunities, then I think we need to find markets abroad.

    Thanks to COVID, we have not been able to really travel and do that kind of market exploration. But, recently we have appointed an export consultant, on a part-time basis to help us look at the export market. Very good inquiries have come in and we are pursuing them.

    Aravinda: What’s the brand INDCOSERVE story?

    Supriya: If I put myself in my farmers’ shoes, then our story would be that we want to produce a tea which is sustainable, which is ethical and, which goes … these words are very commonly used, like empowerment … but we really mean that we want to produce a tea, which builds the lives of farmers towards a better future. From an organization that was a sleeping giant to one that can show the world that a small growers’ organization can be the best among the best, that’s  what our ambition is.

    Aravinda: Is tea farming of interest to the Badaga youth now? Will this stop the migration to the cities?

    Supriya: With the organic cultivation that we are promoting now, we are registering our farmers to move towards the organic cultivation in the next 3-4 years. That is the plan. I think the young people are getting interested in this new and niche areas. If the factories are old, the machinery is dilapidated, if there is no technology, we cannot attract young people, they will not find any value in it. So we are renovating our factory, we are modernising our machines, We are moving towards eco-friendly technologies like LPG, solar. We are also moving towards a massive digitisation. We have launched a growers’ app. I mentioned to you some time back about the annual awards. We are introducing the young tea grower award. We want them them come into the boards during the election. That’s when change will happen. We want young farmers to come. They will come only when they look at the factory and say, it’s next gen.

    Aravinda: What has turning profitable meant?

    Supriya: We are not looking at profitability only in terms of money. We are looking at it in terms of what role we played for the people for whom we were established. For us, profitability will be in those areas, look at the UN sustainability goals – poverty, hunger. Did you provide livelihood opportunities? Did you reduce their vulnerability to situations like Covid?

    Yes, we did. During Covid, we were the only cooperative, only factories operating with all precautions, because there was a huge demand for tea from various other states, especially from Kerala. Where we supplied 2000 tonnes in a year, we supplied it in 21 days to Kerala. None of our farmers had to borrow. None of our farmers had to face the brunt of Covid. That is where our profitability, our existence matters. Did you reduce the vulnerability of your farmer to  unprecedented crisis like Covid. That’s where we played a very important role.

    We are very proud about the fact that when this order was asked, whether we will be able to do it, within three days, all the farmers, they sprung into action. We opened up factories, supported by the government of Tamil Nadu. Farmers bore the gloves, the masks, the sanitation, and the medical checkup. We were the only people working. We worked through the entire COVID period and we fulfilled our commitment and earned INR 21crores, which we distribute it to our farmers. I think, this is where the real profitability or the success of an organization lies, when you are able to support your farmers in situations like this.

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  • Timely Tea Delivery

    Early harvests in China, India, and Kenya sent new teas to market early this year – a fortunate head-start. Unlike last year, labor availability is good despite COVID-19 restraints, tea regions report fine weather, and orderly processing is raising expectations of a bountiful crop. In this segment Jason Walker, spokesperson for Firsd Tea, the US division of the largest green tea supplier in the world, discusses two remaining challenges impeding timely tea delivery.

    Jason Walker on obstacles to timely tea delivery.
    Map shows ships idled for days waiting a berth at ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles, Calif.

    Finally Under Way

    Early harvests in China, India, and Kenya sent new teas to market early this year – a fortunate head-start. Unlike last year, labor availability is good despite COVID-19 restraints, tea regions report fine weather, and orderly processing is raising expectations of a bountiful crop. Two hurdles remain. Transport is stretched to the breaking point as reinvigorated economies stir from pandemic weariness. The second hurdle is cost. Wholesalers, retailers, and importers that last year bore the weight of spiking prices must now make up for lost earnings. Expect significant price increases for both specialty and commodity teas for the foreseeable future.

    Tea Biz: COVID-19 and the chaos of lockdowns this time last year presented unique delivery challenges. Describe how the logistical hurdles differ for the 2021 harvest.

    Jason Walker: We did see locations and origins that either could not get any tea out at all, or we saw that they could not get anything out on their regular schedule. There were multiple variations of disruption that were happening last year.

    For example: Some growing areas in China saw a shortage of workers to harvest the spring crop. Then you may have packing or processing facilities that were locked down or running a skeleton crew. On top of that- even if your workforce could pluck, process, and pack on schedule, shipments could still be hindered

    This year we are seeing a more steady flow. We are seeing harvests started earlier. Compared to last year things look like they’re much more on track. Especially in terms of harvest and processing/packing

    In October the dollar costs of shipping really started to ratchet up.

    Things were behind schedule.Then we started to see there was an inadequate supply of either ships or containers.  Things were piled up because of ports that had been closed. Port closures caused shipping routes to get rearranged, and it took time to re-position and resume normal flow.

    Then you had increased demand for online retail. Lots of new equipment and personal items were getting shipped. People who used to spend their money on a on a dinner out now buying exercise equipment and things like that. You just have more stuff trying to get on the water at the same time. 

    It takes months for all that to shift back into what it was. Containers were not even available for weeks sit at ports waiting for days or weeks just to get loaded onto a ship. 

    I tracked one of our ship’s on Vessel Finder just to see where it was day by day.

    I had heard the stories of logjams at LA and Long Beach ports, the online vessel tracking service let me see just how our shipments might be impacted. By taking a screenshot daily, I saw how our shipment waited in a line of ships offshore for about 7-8 days before being cleared to dock and unload.

    Every single day we saw it just sitting there waiting its turn to get unloaded.

    Then we began hearing stories that some of those ships were returning empty because the rates for East Asia into Western US were four times the going rate.

    We are seeing still seeing some of that.

    We had to share some of that burden of costs with our customers. 

    Tea Biz: In 2020 importers, wholesalers, and retailers eased the price shock for consumers by absorbing some of the sharp increase in transportation costs. This year prices are expected to rise with retailers promoting pre-orders and fewer free shipping offers. What advice can you offer to reduce the cost of transporting tea.

    Jason Walker: We have been trying to encourage our customers and everyone out there to make their best projections that we can know roughly when you need it. That helps everybody along the line prioritizing the order. It also average out. You may pay higher rates now, but may be able to offset that later as the cost of things goes down and we all can adjust our prices.

    Projections essentially help ease the strain on the logistics chain. Container shipments, warehouses, and truckers are better equipped to send and receive the right amounts of product while compensating for delays caused by a strained system. The alternatives are to either overprepare (potentially overwhelming the system), or under-prepare and risk being left without. We recognize it can be tough to make projections in these unparalleled circumstances but the benefits outweigh the costs. Depending on the size of the customer and their orders, clients are providing 6-month or quarterly projections. As a result we have seen fewer interruptions due to better planning. Observers in ocean freight, major ports, and domestic trucking all indicate the overall instability may continue until late spring or early summer.

    Firsd Tea has been tracking and sharing updates we receive from logistics partners and sharing that via our newsletter and blog:

    Shipageddon: Plan Ahead
    Shipageddon: Continues Through Chinese New Year
    Shipageddon: November Update

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