When we last visited Nepal, we discovered Shangri-la, an operation envisioned and built by three brothers that provides a sustainable local market for the green leaf grown by over 600 small stakeholders. Before Shangri-la existed, these farmers sold their leaf to more distant factories or even to third-party brokers at prices that were low compared to those fetched in neighboring Darjeeling. This price difference was the result of not only the remoteness of the tea-growing area, but also, quite often, the limited market power and technical capabilities of the farmers themselves. In short, they faced the problem that many small farmers across the world face: they had no means of adding value to the raw product.
Not all small farmers are fortunate enough to have market access to a progressive partner like Shangri-la or Jun Chiyabari. Such was the case of the Shree Sunderpani Tea Cooperative based near Fikkal in Ilam District. Over 130 small farmer families—many of them growing tea on less than one acre of land—had no dedicated outlet for their green leaf. Happily, this situation changed this spring with the opening of the Gorkha factory.
Gorkha is the result of a five-year joint project between Nepali tea producers, the German specialty tea retailer TeaGschwendner, and GTZ, a German governmental organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development through international cooperation. (Full Disclosure: I am currently employed by TeaGschwendner USA. For the record, I am delighted if you buy Nepali tea from any merchant!)
Under the arrangement, the factory purchases green leaf from the small farmer community. Each family also receives technical agricultural assistance – as successful organic theory and techniques are challenging to implement – while appointed experts advise factory production. After all, there is little point in having access to premium-quality leaf if the factory cannot process it with skill.
The current phase of the project revolves around organic conversion and certification. Small farmers are assisted in the purchase of cows and instructed in the production of organic compost from manure and sustainably harvested local plant material. Specialized bio-gas units – underground cement tanks that generate and store methane fuel – are also being built at each farmhouse. A single cow can supply enough bio-gas to meet the daily cooking needs of a family of four, while production of dairy goods and the sale of calves provide significant additional income. From the farmers’ perspective, perhaps the most critical facet of the program is the elimination of market uncertainty. They do not have worry about the price their leaves will fetch as their sale is already guaranteed.
The next phase of the project includes the construction of a new regional training center where small tea farmers across eastern Nepal will be able to learn organic agricultural techniques and gain insight into their industry.
All of this hard work comes with one big question—how good is the tea? Fortunately, the project has begun with smashing success and the initial quality has surpassed expectations. The Gorkha First Flush offers a brilliant yellow, floral cup that rivals some of the better offerings from Darjeeling.
Whether the Gorkha project can serve as a model for tea-based economic development in other countries remains to be seen. To the extent that such projects can drive value creation and economic autonomy back to the source, they may be able to achieve lasting results.
I hope to explore this very theme with all of you in the coming months. Please join me as we investigate how economic development is creating change in our industry.
Thanks to TeaGschwendner for all the photos.