• THIRST Examines Three Aggregated Tea Production Models that Benefit Smallholders

    “I’ve seen some very good plantations in my travels, in India, in Tanzania, in Kenya, and I’m sure there are others in many other countries as well. But at the end of the day, a plantation is still a plantation, and the workers are still in that large entity,” says THIRST Founder/CEO Sabita Banerji.

    “I think an alternative model of smallholder farmers aggregating is starting to emerge. Just comparing the two, the difference between how a tea plantation worker lives and how a smallholder farmer lives is really quite significant,” she says

    Control distributed amongst its elements makes for a much more powerful, stronger, sustainable, and more efficient entity, explains Banerji

    “I think this model will gradually replace plantations in the long run,” she said.

    THIRST Founder Sabita Banerji
    Sabita Banerji, Founder/CEO THIRST
    Sabita Banerji, Founder/CEO THIRST

    Tea Smallholders in Tanzania and Kenya are Banding Together to Make Better Tea

    By Dan Bolton

    Sabita Banerji founded THIRST in 2018.

    The non-profit platform she heads is working towards a stronger, fairer, more resilient tea industry in both tea-producing and tea-consuming countries. Sabita was born and raised on tea plantations in Kerala and Assam. She has nearly 20 years of experience in ethical trade and international development, having held strategic posts at Oxfam and the Ethical Trading Initiative, and has been a human rights consultant to a wide range of companies and non-profits. She was previously a member of the Board of Directors of Just Change, UK – a voluntary community tea trading initiative.  Sabita graduated from the University of Bristol, studying philosophy and English.

    Dan Bolton: Tea smallholders now produce most of the world’s tea by volume yet retain only a small fraction of its value. To prosper, small and medium enterprises must add value at origin. The first step is learning to produce consistent, high-quality tea at scale.

    Sabita Banerji: I’m completely on the same page as you. And I think, like you, that this model of smallholder farmers sort of aggregating is gradually going to replace plantations in the long run.

    What interests me about that model links back to something I read years ago in a book by Kevin Kelly, editor of WIRED Magazine. The book “Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World” (1992) described this idea that when the control of something is distributed amongst its elements, it makes for a much more powerful, stronger, sustainable, and more efficient entity.

    It seems to me that that’s what’s naturally starting to happen in the tea sector, that the plantations worked in an economic sense, and I suppose partially, some would say, in a social sense, for nearly 200 years. Now, that model is struggling to be economically viable.

    And it’s struggling to be sort of socially and morally viable with the increasing kind of pressures on companies to ensure that workers have their own autonomy, that they’re living decent lives, and that they have sufficient income.

    I’ve seen some very good plantations in my travels, in India, in Tanzania, in Kenya. I’m sure there are others in many other countries as well. But at the end of the day, a plantation is still a plantation, and the workers are still workers in that large entity.

    There is an alternative model that’s starting to emerge in Tanzania and Kenya, where I’ve visited many different smallholder farms and a few plantations. Just comparing the two, the difference between how a tea plantation worker lives and how a smallholder farmer lives is really quite significant.

    I’m not saying that a smallholder farmer’s life is easy; it’s far from it. It’s hugely hard work. In some senses, the typical day of a smallholder farmer, particularly the woman, is, in some ways, no easier than that of a tea plantation worker. She must get up at four in the morning, fetch water, get the kids ready for school, make food, then go out to the fields and work.

    I spoke to one woman who said that the tea collection centers were between one and four kilometers away. There were various centers she could go to, and she could carry 30 kilograms at a time on her head. But if she’s produced 150 kilograms, she must make that journey five times.

    So, it’s a hard, hard life, but she has her own house, she has her own land, can diversify, and can plant other crops. She can build onto her house if she wants. That model has a certain dignity and self-respect and a certain sort of agility built into it.

    A central factory will have collection centers around its immediate area. And then individual farmers will bring their leaf to that collection center, so they are both part of a bigger whole, the whole entity of that region. But they’re also autonomous. And I think that combination is really, really promising.

    Dan: You described a typical bought leaf factory supplied by independent smallholders. What other models are working?

    Sabita: I saw three versions of that smallholder aggregated model, which I found very interesting.

    Before I go into them, let me explain why we made this trip and why Narendranath Dharmaraj is going to Sri Lanka to do the same.

    We plan to document as many of these alternative approaches as possible. Because I think alternatives are now needed. The tea industry is, you know, really up against it.

    The different models I saw in Tanzania are block farming and the Kazi Yetu model you mentioned, which is a social enterprise working on a much smaller scale but focusing on specialty tea. And finally, the Kenya Tea Development Agency, which is, you know, well established. It’s not new, but it works.

    Block Farming in Tanzania

    Dan: Will you share some brief observations about each? Let’s start with the block farming model, which is new to me. Please describe how that works.

    Sabita: Block farming is a model I came across in southern Tanzania. This was a project supported by The Wood Foundation.* In Tanzania, they helped to set up a company called the Njombe Outgrower Service Company (NOSC), which exists to help smallholder farmers set up unity production in this block farming model.

    In Tanzania, there’s a lot of unused land. And in a village, you might have a wide tract of open land that belongs to the village. What they do is ask the local farmers if they want to plant tea in this area, and each farmer has a few acres.

    One of the farms that I visited had 56 farmers and, I believe, 120 acres. Each farmer was responsible for their own area of this block farm. But together, they benefited from the extension services of NGOs and Njombe Outgrower Servicing Company, who would help them with soil testing and advise on what kind of fertilizer they need, provide the fertilizer in bulk for all the farmers to divide up an organized collection of the green leaf.

    And the project has also been working with ekaterra to build a local factory, which is brand new; all the machinery is very new and fresh. From then on, it works like the other smallholder aggregation systems we’ve discussed.

    The farmers in those block farms send their leaf to this factory, which is then processed, and they get paid according to the quantity and quality.

    Dan: Are there incentives to improve quality? Does the factory offer training?

    Sabita: The extension workers provide their farmers with a lot of advice about improving their quality and, you know, help them test it. The factory is the final arbiter of the quality and the price.

    Dan: Are these bought leave factories independent businesses?

    Sabita: This factory is. But it’s part of the project. I believe that eventually, the farmers will own the factory. Once they’ve had sufficient training and built up their skills and understanding of the model, so, it’s slightly different from factories in India, where the factories are independent entities just buying commercially from the local farmers.

    Here they have this symbiotic relationship, where, you know, the success of the factory depends on the quality of the leaf that’s coming in. Also, there’s a concern about the well-being of the farmers. So, it’s not just about the tea; it’s also about the farmers themselves.

    What THIRST is always looking at is the people, you know, how does it affect the workers? How does it affect the farmers?

     We visited one farmer who was rebuilding his house, and he showed us his smallish house, which is bigger than a tea plantation worker’s house.

    Now, he is building a reasonable-sized brick house with a solid roof. However, he was able to do this partly because of the tea. And he very much acknowledged that this block farming model had really helped boost his income, but he was also not 100% reliant on tea. Like all the smallholder farmers I met, he was growing many other crops, including maize, sugarcane, etc. That diversification was giving him an extra income, a direct result of this autonomy in land ownership.

    Dan: These guys don’t have degrees in economics; they intuitively understand that they will only get a return on their investment by marshaling resources. They see many intangible benefits: self-reliance and peer respect, and over time, they build confidence from thoughtfully managing what they own, however meager.

    Sabita: I think, in some senses, the only thing better than a degree in economics for understanding those issues ? is poverty. People who live in or very close to poverty are incredibly creative, resourceful, and able to judge where to use very limited resources to maximize the return. I will always remember when I worked for Oxfam, reading about women in Bangladesh who were illiterate. This particular group of women didn’t know maths, but they could look at a handful of rice and tell you exactly how much it weighed. And they were saving rice handful by handful to save up to buy a new house. So, that kind of attention to detail and understanding of their environment is what you see with small farmers.

    Dan: When they harness that resourcefulness, they become profitable, they build a bigger house, their children stay on the farm, and their wives have better nutrition and health care. So many good things happen.

    Sabita: Yes, that’s true. But maybe after we’ve talked through the different models, I’d also love to talk about what happens to the tea once it leaves the factory because I think that’s a big constraint on these farmers. It gets to the point where it doesn’t matter what they do, how well they manage it, how good the quality of the tea is, how good the system is; once it leaves the factory, it becomes this global commodity subject to market forces. And I think that’s what’s really putting pressure on the whole industry.

    Related: Tea Producers Urged to Share Insights On Human Rights

    Kezi Yetu

    Kazi Yetu factory workers
    Kazi Yetu factory workers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

    Sabita: The following example was a social enterprise based in Dar es Salaam, Kazi Yetu, which means “our work.” It’s a social enterprise.

    I first visited their blending unit in Dar es Salaam. It’s a small blending unit with maybe 15 workers or so. The workers were measuring out the tea into tea bags, making the tea bags, and packaging it.

    They are mostly young single mothers employed at a reasonable wage. They are given health insurance, which is incredibly valuable to anybody living in Sub-Saharan Africa. They have a pleasant, clean, calm, non-bullying work environment.

    If she’s representative of the others, the worker I spoke to was very thankful for that working environment.

    When I arrived, they had just been consulted about what kinds of chairs. Transform Trade, an NGO based in the UK, had offered to invest in improving the work environment to make it more comfortable, so they had gone out to buy some new chairs. Management had taken the workers to the chair shop to choose which chairs they would like. This attention to detail and the inclusion of the workers in the decision were really impressive.

    Kazi Yetu produces lovely tea. It is very high-quality specialty tea, blended with herbs and spices, which they buy from smallholder farmers and then beautifully packaged. And then that is marketed for a high-end market.

    That model seems also to be working quite well.

    Sabita Banerji visit a Kazi Yetu tea farm
    Sabita Banerji plucking tea on a visit to a Kazi Yetu tea farm

    I was also privileged to go to north Tanzania, where they built a small factory. It was an investment made by CARE International and Bloomberg Philanthropies. They built a small factory in a village close to where the tea farmers lived to reduce the distance they would have to travel to deliver their tea, meaning the tea would be fresher.  The farmers formed a cooperative that will own this factory so that more of the value chain is within their ownership and control. And when that’s done, they will get more of the return from the major tea.

    This model seemed to be very much about the people as well as the quality of the tea and the commercial viability of the tea. So that was very heartening to see.

    KTDA, Kenya

    Dan: You also visited Kenya.

    Sabita: The Kenya Tea Development Agency is very well established. It’s been around, you know, as long as Kenya’s independence. And it seems to be a model that works very well; I mean, no model is perfect. It’s got lots of challenges lots of issues. But fundamentally, it seems to be working well.

    It’s a model of many smallholder farmers aggregating their tea. But it’s nationwide, and it’s very well organized.

    Groups of smallholder farmers are organized into zones. The farmers will elect a leader. Zone leaders manage tea collection points. Then, the leaders of the collection points will elect somebody who is part of the directorship of the factories. You hear repeatedly in Kenya that the farmers own the factories.

    The Kenya Development Agency, which used to be a government authority, was privatized and has become much more efficient. They also have a company which is a management Kenya Tea Development Agency management services. They’ve got a company that does packaging, and they’ve got Kenya Tea Development Agency Foundation, which looks more at sort of social issues and environmental issues.

    All these elements are in place and highly well-functioning.

    All these models have in common the autonomy of the smallholder farmer and the aggregation of bringing many smallholder farmers together to benefit from economies of scale.

    One of the big concerns that people working on social issues have is that on a tea plantation, you have a great deal of control and oversight over the workforce. And you can have things like gender policies, occupational health and safety policies, etc.

    The concern has always been that if the tea industry is going to fragment into tens of thousands of smallholder farmers, then you wouldn’t have that oversight.

    But this aggregation also helps bring that oversight, except it becomes more support. So, the extension workers I met talked to the farmers about how to grow better quality tea and have a better crop and about environmental issues and social issues such as gender equity and household finances.

    The Kenya Tea Development Agency Foundation had a very comprehensive Holistic Economics Training that also helped to improve dialogue between household members, which reduced gender-based violence.

    I feel that this is the future of the tea industry. It’s, you know, it’s happening kind of organically. The plantation model is starting to feel the strain. You keep hearing about plantations closing or huge social unrest on tea plantations. In Kenya, there have been issues with people raiding tea plantations, stealing the tea, burning tea harvesters, etc.

    The smallholder model presents different issues, but at least you know that there is autonomy and this ability to diversify, which is better for the farmers’ income and gives them more security because not all their eggs are in one basket. That biodiversity also means that it’s better from an environmental point of view.

    Dan: In the book you mentioned, Out of Control, Kelly writes that common behaviors naturally align when many individuals work closely together with a shared purpose. Distributed systems are characterized by emergence, he explains. Each individual influences the behavior of the whole. Over time, a consensus emerges… “a process from quantitative change to qualitative change.”

    Sabita: I think we’ve painted quite a rosy picture. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenges those farmers face.

    I mentioned what happens once the tea leaves the factory. The tea is often sold through private negotiations, but a lot goes through auctions. And the fact is, once it leaves the factory, it becomes a commodity. Then, it becomes even more of a commodity because it gets blended with other teas from other countries. So, after it leaves the factory, it suddenly loses almost its value for the farmer while, at the same time, somehow adding enormous amounts of value to the blenders, packers, and retailers who will ultimately sell it. So, there’s something that needs to be addressed in how tea is marketed globally.

    Almost all the models we’ve discussed have involved some injection of funds from a foundation or an NGO. And it’s almost like the industry can’t manage independently without something external being put in, almost as charity.

    This is the most popular drink in the world, after water. Why should it be depending on injections from charities?

    It should earn enough to support the people who produce this amazing product.

    *The Wood Foundation works with 28,000 smallholder farmers in Tanzania. Their largest operation is the Tatepa tea factory (Watco), which serves 14,000 smallholders with support from the Njombe Outgrowers Services Company

    Out of Control

    Out of Control chronicles the dawn of a new era in which the machines and systems that drive our economy are so complex and autonomous as to be indistinguishable from living things. – Goodreads
    Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines
    Publisher: Basic Books | 531 Pages
    January 1992
    Free Download Link: MediaFire

    Out of Control by Kevin Kelly

    Editor’s Note: Tea Biz will continue this conversation on the importance of developing ways to capture and retain supply chain value in the tea lands.

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  • Built on Beneficence

    Romesh Walpola, Chief Executive Officer of Tea Smallholder Factories, Ltd. (TSFL) in Sri Lanka, explains how the Colombo-based firm taps the output of one to 10-acre farms to produce approximately three million kilos of tea annually. Investing in smallholder training, wellness, and educational programs, including internships for second-generation farmers, earns the loyalty of thousands of small tea growers and top dollar for teas sold at auction. 

    • Caption: One way that Tea Smallholders Factories, a division of John Keells Group, invests in smallholders is by hosting events, including free health checkups pictured above, at which healthcare providers prescribe medicine to 1,021 factory employees and nearby community members supporting the Neluwa Tea Factory.
    Romesh Walpola, CEO, Tea Smallholder Factories

    Tea Smallholder Factories Earn Loyalty that Maintains Competitive Quality Teas

    By Dan Bolton

    In aggregate, farms of 10 acres or less contribute 77% of Sri Lanka’s total tea crop, according to Plantations Minister Ramesh Pathirana. That percentage has increased over time. Bought leaf factories purchase an estimated 70% of the tea grown by smallholders.

    Large estates own 56% of the 202,985 hectares under tea, according to the Sri Lanka Tea Board’s annual report, but contribute only a quarter of the 250 to 300 million kilos of tea processed annually. Sri Lankan smallholders cultivate about 44% of the land under tea, selling to large estates and bought-leaf factories. Only 18% of Sri Lanka’s factories process tea exclusively grown on their estate.

    All sectors compete at the weekly Colombo Tea Auction, under the aegis of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. Around 6.5 million kilos of tea are sold weekly at this global marketplace where quality is rewarded with the world’s highest average auction prices for black tea.

    Tea Smallholders Factories, Ltd. is an example of a successful public-private partnership, explains CEO Romesh Walpola. The company, which employs 411 workers, processes green leaf procured from 8,698 tea smallholders and green leaf collectors. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 2023, TSFL reported an 85% increase in revenue totaling LKRs. 3.74 billion compared to 2021-22 and a profit before taxes of Rs. 440 million (growth of 1,845% YOY with a dividend per share of Rs. 6.67). TSFL accomplished these strong results during a year in which Sri Lanka’s total gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 7.8%.

    Tea Smallholder Factories Output

    Neluwa Tea Factory: annual production 883,000 kgs | 1,413 suppliers
    Halwitigala Tea Factory: annual production 888,000 kgs | 956 suppliers
    Hingalgoda Tea Factory: annual production 1,075,000 kgs. | 892 suppliers
    Kurupanawa Tea Factory: annual production 888,000 kgs | 925 suppliers
    New Panawenna Tea Factory: annual production 1,115,000 kgs | 1,473 suppliers
    Broadlands Tea Factory: annual production 952,000 kgs. | 3,100 suppliers
    Link to 2022 Annual Report | 2023 Annual Report

    Dan Bolton: Romesh, how competitive are bought-leaf factories in a premium black tea market like Sri Lanka?

    Romesh Walpola: We compete heads-up with some of the key private factories. Competition is fierce, as you would know. We are located mainly in Galle and Ratnapura and have one factory in Ginigathhena. The competition is in Galle, and Ratnapura is quite tenacious and very competitive. Most are private factories owned and operated by listed companies.

    Dan: The Sri Lanka Tea Board estimates growers earn about $6,000 (LKRs 2 million) per hectare annually. Yields average 4,000 to 5,000 kilograms per hectare. Input costs vary, and labor expenses are far lower for smallholders. Will you describe the typical smallholders that sell your factories green leaf?

    Romesh: On average, they own about an acre or less outright.

    Romesh Walpola, CEO Tea Smallholder Group
    Romesh Walpola, CEO of the Tea Smallholders Factory, a division of John Keells Group

    Dan: May I summarize the basics? Tea is grown as a cash crop mainly for export. Plantations and smallholders alike plant at a density of 5,000 to 6,000 bushes per acre. Smallholders manage a mixed use property acquiring and apply fertilizer and inputs for tea as well as home-grown food. Smallholders often involve their children and extended families in farming to lower labor expenses.

    Do the thousands of growers you work with produce tea in disciplined rounds? Or do they pluck on occasions when they’re not doing something else?

    Romesh: Yeah, they maintain between seven to 10 days of plucking rounds.

    Dan: Are they third-party certified? Organic?

    Romesh: Not really, not organic. There are a few smallholders who own organic acres as well. But very few.

    Dan: You explained that training and quality control are a big part of your contribution to their success.

    Romesh: Yes. We have our extension officers in the field on a daily basis. And they have little pocket groups that are educated on basic soil management, the type of fertilizer to apply, pruning cycles, and recommended plucking rounds, all that is needed to maintain their plots. We give that service to the smallholders, but apart from that, they do their own thing as well.

    Dan: It sounds like you are empowering these growers to become rural entrepreneurs, right? They control their fate. As growers, they maintain leaf quality. They must deliver a high percentage of fine-plucked leaves from each round.

    Romesh: That is one area that we are very particular. I mean, we don’t take just any leaf. We are very selective. We encourage them to bring a decent standard because, as you know, if you put some garbage in, you get garbage out, right, so you have to make sure your raw material is good for you to have an end product so we’re very picky in terms of you know, selecting a reasonably good standard of leaf.

    Dan: Do you incentivize quality.

    Romesh: Yes. We give them a small incentive for what we call super leaf. Let’s say the current standard of fine leaf pluck (two leaves and a bud) is at about 50 to 55% of what they pluck when you get something over 60 to 65%; then, we give them an incentive for that amount of leaf they bring.

    So that it’s, you know, encouraging them to raise the bar for themselves and get something back in turn. We teach them that the higher the tea price at the auctions, the higher the green leaf payment according to the tea board’s formula. So that’s the positive of this vicious cycle, we keep telling them.

    Dan: Have you established a minimum rate for green leaf, a price floor?

    Romesh: Most of the time, but there are instances we are not during the rush period. We look at what the competition is doing when there are lean months. And we try not to overpay because we don’t believe in, you know, just because the neighbor pays X, you go and try to match that? Because it has to make sense financially.

    Dan: It’s a business.

    Romesh: Exactly.

    Dan: And the nature of the business is that your costs fluctuate, as does the price at auction.

    Romesh: In the long run, if you go down that path of paying a rate based on what the neighbor is paying, it doesn’t make real business sense.

    What we do is add a lot of value to their livelihoods.

    • The Smallholder Tea Factories process 3 million kilos annually

    Key Performance Indicators (2023 Annual Report)

    Tea production in kilos2,463,0002,966,0003,631,000
    Net sale average USD | Rs./kg$4.82 | 1,554.58$2.03 | 653.67$2.06 | 664.54
    Revenue from Customers (USD)$11,614,000$6,262,000$7,278,000
    Profit after Tax (PAT) (USD)$864,000$47,500$206,400
    TSFL reported a 17.2% return on equity for the year ending March 31, 2023. Bought leaf is the single highest cost of sales, increasing by 96% YOY in line with the increase in the tea auction price. The price payable for green leaf is regulated by the Tea Board through the Tea Commissioner’s formula. TSFL purchased 12 million kilograms of green leaf during the fiscal year year while paying Rs. 2.88 billion to the green leaf suppliers. In 2021/22, TSFL incurred a cost of Rs. 1.47 billion to capture a green leaf supply of 14.5 million kilograms.

    Loyal Smallholders

    Romesh: We’ve identified that group of loyal smallholders who don’t go to any competition if they offer a few more rupees.

    I will give you some examples of what we are doing for them. Last year we completed 20 projects and initiatives to positively impact the communities surrounding our business operations.

    Just a month ago, we arranged the region’s largest health camp on our premises, so we had roughly 1,000 plus villagers and smallholders coming in to get their health checks. And that was a huge deal for them because some of them had never even had a simple blood sugar test so you could detect problems. Then this is what we do for the community.

    They are concerned about the next generation in tea, their children.

    There are scholarship programs that we are conducting for the schoolchildren in the vicinity, and for the next generation of smallholders, we offer internships to study the whole factory process and learn about manufacturing. Plus, we explain what happens after the dispatch so that they understand the sampling and laboratory testing that happens between the broker and buyer. Then we take them to a buyer and give them that full experience and exposure. And after completing that cycle, we will find them employment within the industry. They could eventually become a buyer or brokers — even own their own factories. So that’s the educational part that we’re doing.

    We do this on a regular basis training 11 interns last year. And once they finish, we give them a certificate. Young people leave our farms otherwise.

    Smallholder Profile

    Smallholder Mrs. Chandra Jayasingha, 62, farms an acre of tea on land where she and her husband also grow several cash crops, including spices, pepper, coconut, and bananas. The approximately 5,000 tea plants (Cultivar D2026) are not certified organic but are cultivated using organic practices.

    Neluwa Tea Factories Smallholder Supplier Mrs. Chandra Jayasingha
    Neluwa Tea Factories Smallholder Supplier Mrs. Chandra Jayasingha. Photo by Dan Bolton

    “The significance of social and relationship capital as a valuable
    asset for creating value will continue into the future, playing a
    crucial role in driving the sustainable growth and performance. Accordingly TSFL’s primary focus will be on sustaining our green leaf suppliers, especially small holder partners by providing value-added services to support sustainable agricultural practices and environmentally friendly approaches.”

    – TSFL 2023 Annual Report

    Dan: Sri Lanka’s tea industry, led by the tea board, plantation owners, and growers’ associations, have signaled their intent to make tea production sustainable.

    Romesh: Sustainability is something that we are also looking at. Smallholders are fully aware of, you know, its importance. Sustainable practices at the factories and by the company contribute to stickiness amongst loyal smallholders.

    So for us, it’s not about paying something a little bit more than the competition when taking leaf; it’s about actually deep diving into, you know, looking at enhancing the livelihood of the community and the smallholders.

    Smallholder Profile

    Dayananda Matarage, 67, owns the 10-acre Gulanahena Estate in Thiniyawala in the foothills of the Sinharaja Rainforest. The son of a planter, he produces 3,000 kilos of green leaves on six acres planted in TRI 2022-27 and 4042-49 cultivars. He first planted tea on 1.5 acres in 2001, expanding gradually, recently adding two acres. The main fertilizer is an organic compost, to which he adds bioliquids to enhance micronutrients. He does not use plant protection chemicals or herbicides. He hires local field workers part-time to pluck tea and harvest coconut, pepper, pineapple, sopa, rubber, papaya, and bananas, and he offers a homestay through Sinharaja Holiday Bungalows. Tea generates 75% of the farm’s revenue. A retired engineer, he makes a delicious homemade kombucha he shared with us in his kitchen with rice and coconut milk welithalapa and oil cakes.

    Neluwa Smallholder Dayananda Matarage
    Neluwa Smallholder Dayananda Matarage

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the worst economic crisis in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history resulted in an increase in poverty rates of up to 25% in 2022, a dramatic increase from 11.3% in 2019. Although one fourth of the country’s population has fallen into poverty, many do not receive monetary support from the government, largely due to the weaknesses of social welfare schemes. More than 50% of Sri Lanka’s poorest population is not covered by the government welfare programs”

    The World Bank
    • The International Labour Organization describes Sri Lanka smallholders as farming 10 acres (four hectares) or less. As defined in the Tea Control Act, Small Tea Holdings produced approximately 95% of the low-country tea, 59% of the middle-country tea, and 15% of Sri Lanka’s up-country tea in 2014.
    Dan Dines on Local Delicacy
    Dan snacks on local delicacies

    Visit Neluwa, Sri Lanka (Wikipedia)
    John Keells Plantations Services
    John Keells Holdings

    Neluwa Medagama Tea Factory
    • Dan traveled more than 1,500 kilometers during a 10–day visit to Sri Lanka in May 2023. My travels were sponsored by the Sri Lanka Tea Board, chaired by Naraj de Mel, with accommodations at the Tea Research Institute courtesy of Dr. K.M. Mohotti. “I’m deeply grateful for the joyful days spent with Pavithri Peiris, the tea board’s Director of Promotion, Gayan Samaraweera, Market Promotion Officer, and Chathura Fernando, Market Analyst. Gayan and Chathura photographed the scenes above.

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  • Badulla Tea Harvest Blessing

    Tea Biz traveled to Badulla, Sri Lanka, in early May to participate in the annual Fresh Tea Festival. Hundreds of local tea growers each carried an offering of intricately arranged tea leaves on a ceremonial plate or a small sack of processed tea. Accompanied by Geta Bera drummers and Wadiga Patuna dancers, they paraded through the city streets to the ancient Muthiyangana Raja Maha Vihara Temple courtyard, where a Buddhist monk blessed the season’s first harvest.

    • Caption: The Ven. Wachissara Hamuduruvo, a Buddhist Monk and senior lecturer in the Department of Public Administration, Faculty of Management at Uva Wellassa University, presides over the first harvest blessing at the temple in Badulla.
    The Sri Lanka Tea Board’s Regional Office in Bandarawela organizes the annual Fresh Tea Festival.
    The tea community paraded through Badulla to offer Buddha their first teas of the season. Photo by Chathura Fernando/Sri Lanka Tea Board

    Tea Planters and Pluckers Present First Harvest Offerings

    By Dan Bolton

    Badulla is an ancient city of 50,000 located in the remote central mountains of Sri Lanka. It is the capital of Uva Province, where tea is grown on steep hillsides alternately exposed to the northeast and the southwest monsoon winds. Plantations are located between 3000 and 5000 feet above sea level.  Here, Thomas Lipton cultivated the world’s most popular tea blend. The district’s distinctive, aromatic high-grown broken orange pekoe (BOP) grades have earned a top price at auctions for over 150 years.

    The city is a picturesque tourist location with guest inns, small hotels, resorts, and bungalows. The rail station is the remote terminus of the upcountry railway built by the British in 1924 to transport tea to Colombo.

    Tea is the major employer with a mix of plantations and smallholders. Once a year, the tea community gathers for the annual First Tea Festival.

    • Temple Gates
      Entering the temple gates

    On Saturday, May 6, I joined Sri Lanka Tea Board Director of Promotions Pavithri Peiris and staff members for the annual First Tea Festival Parade. The Tea Board’s Regional Office in Bandarawela organized this year’s festival.

    Parallel lines of pluckers and tea planters formed ranks at the Badulla administration building with tea offerings in hand. Masked dancers costumed in bright yellow skirts readied themselves to perform the Wadiga Patuna, along with Kandyan men wearing Ves Netuma chain vests adorned with silver ornaments. On a large flatbed truck, workers readied a silk-covered platform that supported a huge brass urn to receive offerings of finished tea. Musicians took their places, and the parade began to the beat of Geta Bera drummers.

    A Buddhist monk in bright saffron robes motioned for me to walk with him along streets lined with onlookers. He explained to the curious that I had traveled 12,000 kilometers to convey the gratitude of tea drinkers in the West.

    The parade route was less than a kilometer.

    Barefoot we approached the temple grounds guarded by four Asian elephants. The sacred site honors Siddhartha Gautama (who lived from 563 to 483 BC). Known as the Buddha, he was a prince born in what is now Nepal who traveled to Sri Lanka 2500 years ago during the eighth year after his enlightenment.

    On Station Road, near the temple entrance, a small herd of goats grazed at a roundabout near the clock tower as the drummers and dancers in bearded masks performed in the town square. Vendors sold lotus flowers to the crowd. Stands with fruit and fresh coconut lined the temple walls within sight of a brilliant white dome-shaped stupa built to preserve the Buddha’s relics.

    Muthiyangana Raja Maha Vihara
    The white-domed stupa at Muthiyangana Raja Maha Vihara Temple holds the tears of the Buddha turned into pearls and strands of his hair. Photo by Chathura Fernando/SLTB

    The sand-covered courtyard was peaceful and cool, shaded by palms and bodhi trees of massive girth. The largest tree, surrounded by a gilded enclosure, its limbs braced by ornate support brackets, was planted by an early Ceylon King, Dewanampiathissa, who converted to Buddhism during his 40-year reign from 247 to 207 BC.

    On arrival, celebrants carried the brass urn to a long marble altar and unveiled it. Planters then began tearing open small bags of tea and pouring the tea into the urn. Pluckers brought fresh leaves, forming a large pile near a statue of the Buddha. The crowd was devoted, joyous, and eager to present their teas before sitting cross-legged in the sand to join a meditation led by the monk.

    The monk’s harmonic chants calmed the crowd, who joined in. He then spoke of the harvest before blessing the tea on the altar.

    He explained to the crowd that Buddhist blessings rely on energetic cultivation, not simply prayer. Buddhists earn merit through mindfulness, meditation, chanting, and performing rituals. To be blessed requires practical actions to accumulate merits and good deeds.

    Everyone then socialized over tea with snacks and fruit near the museum on the temple grounds and were on their way back to the fields by noon.

    The altar under the ancient bodhi tree is laden with offerings.

    Harvest blessings originated centuries ago. Tea was first cultivated in Ceylon in 1867 and has since become one of the nation’s most important agricultural products. Sri Lanka is only 500 miles from the equator, so the harvests are not categorized as flushes. The harvest begins in May and peaks from June through September at this altitude. Production of high-grown tea in five provinces totaled 65 million kilos in 2021. Auction prices for these teas averaged $3.90 per kilo in May. Badulla’s rural economy is dominated by tea, making the blessing of the first harvest one of the more important observances on the calendar.

    The monk’s harmonic chants calmed the crowd, who joined in. He then spoke of the harvest before blessing the teas on the altar.”

    – Dan Bolton
    Dan and Buddhist Monk
    Dan offers a leaf and shares a laugh with the Venerable Wachissara Hamuduruvo, Senior Lecturer at Uva Wellassa University in Badulla. Photo by Chathura Fernando, Market Analyst, Sri Lanka Tea Board, Colombo.

    Related: The Pearl Temple
    Visit Badulla, Sri Lanka (Wikipedia)

    Sri Lanka Locator Map
    • Dan traveled more than 1,500 kilometers during a 10–day visit to Sri Lanka in May 2023. My travels were sponsored by the Sri Lanka Tea Board, chaired by Naraj de Mel, with accommodations at the Tea Research Institute courtesy of Dr. K.M. Mohotti. “I’m deeply grateful for the joyful days spent with Pavithri Peiris, the tea board’s Director of Promotion, Gayan Samaraweera, Market Promotion Officer, and Chathura Fernando, Market Analyst. Gayan and Chathura photographed the scenes above.

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  • A Taste of the Wild

    Tea Biz traveled to Sri Lanka in May to the foot of 7,359-foot Adam’s Peak, known locally as Sri Pada (the Budda’s Footprint), a conical sacred mountain ideally suited to tea. Forest Hill Tea founder Buddika Dissanyaka narrates a hike he is leading to a forest of 900 tea trees growing wild on an estate abandoned 140 years ago.

    • Caption: Forest Hill founder Buddika Dissanyaka at the edge of Sri Lankan tea forest.
    Forest Hill Tea Founder Buddika Dissanyaka
    Dan with Forest Hill founder Buddika Dissanyaka
    Dan with Forest Hill founder Buddika Dissanyaka

    An Abandoned Estate Transforms into a Tea Forest

    By Dan Bolton

    Millions of tea trees, first Introduced in 1867, can be found along the 268-mile length of Sri Lanka, a tropical paradise of tea estates that employ 1.5 million people today. The trees at Warnagala Tea Estate, established in 1890 by Scottish planters, today rise 40 to 50 feet into the rainforest canopy on the slopes of the sacred Sri Pada Mountain range. Pluckers climb into the trees to retrieve green leaves for tea making.

    We’ve traveled a long winding road and crossed narrow bridges over fast-moving streams to reach a forest of tea trees 2,900 feet above Sri Lanka’s shores. Joining us to talk about opportunities in specialty tea is Buddika Dissanyaka, one of many smallholders that have energized Sri Lanka’s tea sector. This new generation of rural entrepreneurs produces much of the tea grown in Sri Lanka, one of the world’s top tea-producing countries.

    Dan Bolton: The tea forest is quite remarkable, Buddika. Will you share your story with our readers?

    Buddika Dissanyaka: Thanks for coming all this way to hear from us.

    I’m a professional planter. After schooling, I joined the planting sector as a junior assistant superintendent, and I continued my career for 15-16 years to become one of the youngest superintendents in Sri Lanka.

    And then, I thought of starting something extraordinary. I have a good knowledge of tea and did a lot of research into what I might do. I figured out that there is a potential for making artisanal handcrafted teas. So here we are, speaking, just below the tea forest.

    While attending school in Kandy, I used to go down here with my friend to hike at this place. I noticed that it had very big tea trees growing in the forest. So I thought to start handcrafting artisanal wild tea for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka from this source.

    Since then, we have officially registered under the Sri Lanka tea board to start a micro tea factory. And now, we are proud to say that we are handcrafting artisanal tea and circulating it around the world. And we won some gold medals. We showcase that Sri Lanka can actually produce very good quality teas compared to the other countries that make very high-quality tea.

    Buddika identifies a 40-foot Assamica tree growing in a dense forest.

    Dan: Will you describe the pristine waterfalls and steep hillsides and explain how the dense forest that surrounds us, with its diversity of wildlife, animal life, and plant life, improves the tea?

    Buddika: This estate was originally planted by Scottish planters. They originally brought seeds from Assam, India, and Yunnan Province in China. So we have both varieties growing in the forest. One is Camelia sinensis, and the other is Camelia sinensis assamica. About 140 years back, the founders just abandoned it. The forest has reclaimed the estate over a century without human touch.

    The forest has reclaimed the estate over a century without human touch.”

    – Buddika Dissanyaka

    During our century, the tea estate developed a thick biodiversity where animals are roaming, different species are growing, and spices are growing. So it gives a different character to our wild tea. The root structures are such that the taproot has gone down and down and down where it absorbs top-quality minerals for its leaves. We focus on very high-quality leaves to craft our teas. So our tea has very different characteristics.

    Dan: So this is a tea blended by nature. The two species often don’t grow side by side, but because of the unique nature and microclimates in Sri Lanka, we can see mature teas joined together to create a bio-fauna. It’s a situation in which the teas live together in harmony.

    Buddika: Yeah, it’s actually very unique.

    Dan: We proceed two kilometers, climbing a wash that serves as a service road until we reach the edge of the tea forest.

    Buddika: Now we are in the forest.

    This is Camellia sinensis, the assamica type of tea tree. These are small tea trees. So we have a lot of big tea trees. We have plenty of assamica, but we have lesser amounts of Camellia sinensis sinensis. So, these trees are living in harmony with the forest. You can see this one is a Camellia Sinensis sinensis. We make a lot of green teas from this variety, which is a very subtle, smooth tea.

    Dan: In this area, there are wild-grown spices, right?

    We know many of the species growing in the forest are original plants. So, we know what is wild pepper, wild cardamom, wild clove, and wild cinnamon. We also saw stores offering lots of artisanal natural spice blends. So, we began sourcing our spices in a very sustainable manner. We don’t disturb the diversity in the forest. We harvest only small quantities in the proper season and return to our factory and do our blending. And that is how we preserve this nature.

    Dan: When we returned to the small two-story factory in Kuruwita, I asked Buddika to tell us more about his technique of hand-processing these teas in small batches.

    Buddika: We craft only wild forest-grown tea without damaging the environment and are becoming an example to others. We can work within the forest without destroying it. All our artisans are very skilled, and we always guide them to develop their skills, as we are so concerned about the quality. We are making a small profit in our retail business, so we would like to expand our retail business since the profit margins go to all the stakeholders including artisans, farmers, and the local community.

    Dan: Will you share details about how you market your teas overseas?

    Buddika: We can ship our teas worldwide by DHL, and EMS customers can reach us through our Facebook and INSTAGRAM.

    See: Wild Forest Grown Ceylon Tea

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  • International Tea Day Makes a Splash

    Enthusiasm for the United Nations-designated International Tea Day is peaking this year as tea associations, governments, and brands join in the May 21 tribute to a global tea industry that has increased production from 4.3 to 6.5 billion kilos in the past decade, enabling tea drinkers to enjoy 8.2 billion cups a day. A few of the many activities are linked below.

    • Caption: Tea is celebrated worldwide on International Tea Day (Sunday, May 21, 2023).
    Overview of International Tea Day Activities

    Bringing People Together Over a Cup of Tea

    By Dan Bolton

    The United Nations designated International Tea Day to encourage sustainable production and consumption of tea. This year’s theme is Bringing People Together Over a Cup of Tea. The online and in-person event at the FAO Atrium and tea tasting in Flag Hall is Sunday, May 21, from 2 pm to 3:45 (Rome Time Zone) and will focus on smallholder tea producers, reaffirming the FAO’s commitment to help overcome the challenges they face. Smallholders now produce 60% of the world’s tea, employing millions. The UN website offers several useful reports on how the industry can support the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Reports include International Tea Market: Market Situation, Prospects, and Emerging Issues; Tea Outlook 2027 and Emerging Trends in Tea Consumption.

    The European Speciality Tea Association announced a Zoom fundraiser to support women in tea. Promoted as the world’s biggest sipping event, the online gathering begins at 2 pm (British Summer Time) on Sunday, May 21.

    “We plan to invite more than 1000 people worldwide to raise a cup in unison to celebrate this amazing beverage generating 1000 pounds sterling before and during the event to empower women in tea management. Women have been marginalized in the tea-making process and other management leadership roles within the tea industry, and we want to be a catalytic force to initiate change there. The hour-long event will be recorded for viewing on demand. Visit www.specialityteaeurope.com to register.

    Line up

    • Paola Cruz is a wellbeing influencer @practicewithpaola will talk about tea and wellbeing and how to infuse this in your life.
    • Virginia Lovelace, author and tea scientist, will talk about improving your tea experience at home.
    • Nepal tea collective sisters will talk about their life in tea.
    • Muskan Khanna will talk about being one of the youngest women tea makers.
    • Madelaine Au will talk about organizing a successful tea event in Oregon.
    • Lucy (Mynt Mynt) Shwe from Mother’s Love Tea in Myanmar will speak about the uniqueness of Burmese tea culture.
    • Bernadine Tay from Quinteassential is a Founding Director of the European Speciality Tea Association and will host and moderate the event.

    Expo Té Argentina, in Posadas, Misiones, is a three-day event marking the 100th anniversary of commercial tea production. The event is May 25-27 and includes garden tours, a tea business conference, an exposition, and a tea fair. Learn more…

    • Tea product business round: May 26 from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. 
    • Expo May 25 and 26 from 4 to 9 pm 
    • Tour with Producers of the enterprises: May 27

    Download Conference Program: Day 1 | Day 2

    The Chinese Tea Culture Center in Antwerp will host a tea meditation and tea circle from 3-6 pm on Sunday, May 21. The Belgium Chinese Tea Culture Association is a non-governmental and not-for-profit culture association whose mission is to promote peace, harmony, and respect for the ECO nature and humanity in society through tea and tea serving.

    The Tea and Herbal Association of Canada will host its 4th annual Sofa Summit on Friday, May 19, from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm (Eastern Daylight Time). Join THAC President Shabnam Weber for 11 hours of conversations with tea experts, tea association representatives, and growers worldwide.

    The inaugural Eugene Tea Festival will be held at the Farmer’s Market Pavilion in Eugene, Oregon, from 10 am to 4 pm (Pacific Daylight Time). Organizers invite participants to enjoy tea tastings, educational workshops, and a vibrant marketplace. Learn more…

    Download Workshop Program | Sponsors

    Listen to the interview

    Jessica Woollard discusses Eugene Tea Festival with organizer Madelaine Au

    The Tea Day theme for this year’s German Tea & Herbal Infusions Association events is The Whole World in My Cup.

    Teeverband board member Annemarie Leniger explained the ambitious goals of the industry: “Teas, in all their diversity, are not only part of a highly developed culture of enjoyment, but they are also becoming increasingly important as a valuable, natural food in this country. As a commodity, tea builds bridges between the continents, connects young and old tea fans, and should further promote economic developments in the countries of origin if German tea manufacturers have their way.” 

    European Tea Day organizers announced the inaugural June 2 celebration in Brussels with panel discussions describing the European tea market, new ways of attracting next-generation tea drinkers, and a tasting session. Learn more…

    Key Takeaways

    • Tea export earnings help to finance food import bills, supporting the economies of major tea-producing countries.
    • The tea sector contributes to socioeconomic development, representing a major source of employment and income for millions of poor families worldwide.
    • Tea thrives in specific agro-ecological conditions and environments, often impacted by climate change.
    • In order to ensure benefits for both people and the environment, the tea value chain must be efficient and sustainable at all stages, from field to cup.

    Did You Know?

    • Tea cultivation provides employment and income to millions of smallholder growers, who supplement or even replace the production of larger tea estates in many countries.
    • While three-quarters of the tea produced is consumed domestically, tea is a widely traded commodity.
    • Over the past decades, the global tea industry has grown rapidly, with rising consumers globally.
    • Despite the increase in tea consumption in the major producing countries, per capita consumption remains low, suggesting considerable growth potential exists.

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