A wave of fragrance washed over me as I followed the short, bespectacled gentleman into the tea factory. We were at an elevation of 7,000 feet in the Nilgiri mountains, and it was my first visit to tea country. As we pushed through the tall, corrugated metal doors that were stamped with the estate’s name—Chamraj—I felt like Charlie entering the Chocolate Factory, wide-eyed and dazzled by the secrets that were about to be revealed.
Inside was a labyrinth of connected rooms. The single ingredient for tea, the freshly harvested green leaf of the Camellia sinensis plant, was in varying stages of processing wherever I looked. It was 2013, and I was in India on a Fulbright Fellowship. When I wasn’t conducting research on renewable energy, I was toying with the idea of starting a mission-driven tea company to create livelihoods for farmers. This visit to a tea factory was the first major step in feeling out if that was a realistic idea or just another pipe dream.
The next day, I drove down out of the mountains and back to my grandparents’ home in Bangalore. Once back in the tropical South Indian city, I walked to my favorite market, and sitting in an open air cafe, surrounded by honking cars and newspaper vendors pushing old rickety bikes, I reviewed my notes from my visit.
As I pieced together the numbers, the realization struck like lightning. The farmers were selling their harvest to the factory for $0.10/lb, and the factory was selling the finished tea for $8/lb. So whatever was happening inside that factory was increasing the harvests’ value by roughly 8,000%.
I was awestruck with the possibility that the factory represented. If the farmers owned the factory itself, could they actually earn enough to create the type of sustainable livelihood that global food systems so desperately needed?
Sitting there in Bangalore, surrounded by buses sagging under the weight of the boisterous college students, my mind danced with possibilities. Over the next eight years, I’d pursue that spark. And now, we’re on the verge of launching one of the first community-owned Himalayan tea factories.
Why A Farmer-Owned Tea Factory Can Create Global Change
There are three things that make single-origin organic tea incredible, both as a drink and as a vehicle for change:
- Tea is the world’s most consumed beverage after water. According to the United Nations, the world drinks more tea than any other prepared beverage. The volume of tea drunk globally means that if we could figure out a model for creating sustainable livelihoods for those who grow and process tea, then the hundreds of thousands of mountain farmers currently trapped in subsistence living could experience a brighter future.
- Teas can be made with entirely local resources. During tea’s processing, nothing is added, only water is removed. After the leaf is plucked off the tea bush and brought to the factory, tea makers perform a series of careful steps to coax out the flavors of the leaf. Throughout, the only thing that occurs is the controlled release of water. The simplicity here means teas can be crafted with local resources, keeping production costs low for the farmers. This paves the way towards a financially viable future for all involved.
- Tea plants repair ecosystems and combat climate change. All tea comes from the same plant. The leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant serve as the starting point for black, green, white, matcha, oolong, puerh, and others. Since farmers are already gifted at the hardest part—growing the tea bush—they have the skills necessary to transform its green leaves into tea. And since Camellia sinensis is a tree that can live well past 100 years, each living plant can have a positive impact on the environment. When tea is grown with sustainable and regenerative practices, it has the potential to repair microbe communities, sequester carbon, and increase water retention to improve soil health.
Yet despite all these compelling elements, Indian tea today is almost exclusively grown on massive, corporate-owned estates that churn out literally thousands of tons of cheap tea destined for low-quality bagged tea. The Indian tea history can be traced back to the British colonial era, when the Brits sought to replace China with a new tea growing region that could satiate Europeans’ growing demand for black tea with milk. The British optimized for quantity and consistency, letting quality and farmers’ rights go by the wayside.
Today, with the exception of Darjeeling, the potential for quality Indian tea remains largely untapped. And even there, farmers don’t own tea factories; most live on tea estates owned by urban-based conglomerates. However, with the rise of the American specialty tea market, driven by a new wave of tea drinkers familiar with craft coffee, beer, and wine, Indian tea needs to evolve if it's going to stay relevant. And the sheer size of the Indian tea industry, consistently a top 5 producer in the world after, means that existing regions aren’t going to reinvent themselves overnight. Instead, it’ll be emerging tea makers in new regions that will pioneer the practices of the future.
The Kumaon Comeback
Kumaon is a beautiful mountainous region in the North Indian Himalayas that sits on the border with Nepal. In 2013, I was there on a Fulbright Fellowship, passionate about tea but unfamiliar with how it was grown. For a few weeks, my Kumaoni friend Kailash drove me around on his motorcycle to explore the valleys and ridgelines of the region, which at one time had a thriving tea industry. We toured the remnants of tea gardens, where kids played tag among the weedy, dilapidated stretches of forgotten tea estates.
Farmers told the story of tea bushes that had been planted in the 1860s, and long since abandoned. The story of Kumaon tea represented a common narrative for the stunning, remote mountain region: due to its extreme isolation, the would-be tea industry collapsed despite ideal growing conditions for the Camellia sinensis plant. Today, urban migration is ripping the villages apart. Without the workforce to maintain the farms’ carefully constructed terraces, which weave throughout the villages, are deteriorating into abandoned wasteland.
The government stepped in to help. In 2004, they established a new program to try to create rural livelihoods and revitalize this land. However, the program has never been financially viable, and without international access to markets, the tea grown was doomed to compete in the Kolkata auctions, where the prices are hardly enough to break even.
Two years after I started Young Mountain Tea, I met Desmond, a local leader of one of the four government-run tea factories. Driving around his village of Champawat, I shared my excitement about working to launch a farmer-owned factory in Kumaon. That conversation planted the seeds for our partnership to this day. We started our work together, not by building a factory, but by importing Kumaon teas into the US, so we could begin developing a market to ensure that the future factory would have avid fans of its high-elevation organic tea lined up by the time it was live.
Women Tea-Farmers At The Front Lines
Every year since 2010, I’ve returned to Kumaon (with the exception of 2020 due to COVID.) I’ve learned that of the approximately 500 farmers growing tea in Desmond’s Champawat village, 90% are women. On visits, I try to make them laugh by singing local traditional songs about fruiting berries in my heavily American-accented Hindi. It’s always been crucial that my relationships with these women, though limited by culture, language, and gender, were sincere. And by returning every year, sometimes multiple times in the same season, they developed trust (or at least a soft spot) for me.
Squatting under the shade of silver oaks that dot the tea gardens, we share strong chai and learn about each others’ lives. They’ve shared with me that many are earning their first paychecks ever from growing tea, and that they use this money to invest in their children's education, buy vegetables from local markets when their own crops fail, and get new shoes and farming equipment.
These strong, talented women are the stewards of the tea bushes, but they do far more than just grow tea. They cook three meals every day for their families, farm other crops like rice and vegetables, tend to their livestock, and single-handedly manage their homes because their husbands have had to migrate to cities for work. It became more clear to me that these women would stand to gain so much if they could tap into that 8,000% markup between what they harvested and the factory’s finished tea price.
However, the initial costs to set up a tea factory, and the international marketing wherewithal to ensure it would be viable, was unimaginable for these subsistence farmers. And I certainly had no background in setting up these types of operations. Building a factory would take the combined efforts of a wide variety of experts--on tea machinery, mountain agriculture, women’s empowerment, marketing, financing, and more. Yet I was committed and so was Desmond. So we set our sights on trying something risky and thrilling: making a farmer-owned specialty tea factory a reality so it would drive change for the farmers first in Champawat, and then across Kumaon, and eventually throughout the Himalayas and the world.
The Goals Of A Community-Owned Tea Factory
“From small seeds grow mighty trees,” as the saying goes. In our case, the first tea factory in Champawat is that seed—a pilot to demonstrate what tea can do for a community. The overall goal of the new Kumaon factory will be to improve life for the 500 tea farmers in Champawat. That will come primarily from increasing their income in two ways:
- Increased rates. A factory that produces better tea will create better prices for the unprocessed harvest. Farmers will be able to sell their harvest to the factory at four times the industry average initially, and up to 20 times the average wage for select harvests.
- Dividends. As co-owners of the factory, women farmers will be entitled to a portion of the profits, so we all share in the factory’s success.
However, we know that money alone isn’t the solution, so we’re also working with Avani, the nonprofit I was working with when I first started Young Mountain Tea, to organize trainings and workshops to ensure the women have meaningful participation in the factory. Following best practices for this type of work, we’re developing a set of impact metrics that will grow out of focus groups, so we know that we’re aligning the numbers that will drive decisions with the actual desires of the intended beneficiaries. Our goal is for the Champawat factory to be a blueprint for launching community-owned tea factories, and we’ll invite other aspiring tea makers to learn from the experience.
Partners In Driving Change
Fortunately, we’ve been able to forge partnerships with a wide variety of experts within the tea world and beyond. Value-aligned partners like Frontier Co-op, USAID, and DAISA Capital have provided funding, connections to mentors, and strategic planning. NGOs like Avani and Traidcraft Exchange keep the soul of the work centered, ensuring the farmers are meaningfully engaged and benefiting from it all.
Veteran tea growers like Indi and Muskan Khanna, the Baskota family, and Nigel Melican are coaching us on how to set up the tea factory following best practices. Supply chain partners like the G.S Haly Company and Tea Promoters of India are helping us ensure strong and resilient trade routes to get the tea from the mountains to the market.
We’ve worked with US food safety experts and equipment providers to design a world-class factory, and we have legal teams in both the US and India hard at work to set up the legal entities necessary to make this factory a reality.
However, it’s people drinking Kumaon tea who will ultimately determine this project’s success. You support this mission every time you drink Kumaon tea. We are the exclusive suppliers of Kumaon tea to the US, so everytime you see the name Kumaon on a bag of tea, you know who is benefiting from this work--the women farmers of Kumaon.
Working with this wide range of partners, the factory is moving forward in leaps and bounds. We have secured $650,000+ towards launching the factory, and American tea drinkers are steeping several thousand pounds of Kumaon tea each year.
"If You Build, They Will Come"
It's hard to believe that we're on the precipice of launching a life-changing tea factory in the Himalayas. In just eight years, the seed of an idea conceived on a visit to India's tea gardens, is finally sprouting. I look forward to the day when we complete construction on the factory, and the hardworking women of Kumaon can be rewarded for the fruits of their labor. This factory will play a crucial role in transforming them from subsistence farmers into empowered, grass-roots entrepreneurs.
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Raj Vable, Founder
He has been confounded by the leaf since his first transcendental encounter with white tea in 2010. Three years later, he started Young Mountain Tea to bridge his budding tea obsession with his interest in traveling in the mountains and previous experience creating job opportunities in rural India. He revels in working across cultures and can be regularly found trying to get the rest of the team on board with another outlandish tea project. His favorite teas remain white, and he’s always searching for the next cup of magic.