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Guest Contribution by Narendra Kumar Gurung
The recent international Tea day corresponds to the 25th anniversary of the Nepal government celebrating a local National Tea Day, observed at the end of April. This occurs at almost the start of first flush in Eastern hills and plains areas. Nepalese tea culture is not that long and rich as compared to China and Japan, even though tea production started almost 158 years ago at the government level: Now hardly four decades in development at the general farmers’ level.
Tea farm in Nepal
In general, people’s preference to take tea as a beverage does not have a long history in Nepal. Higher-class families perhaps started doing so with the British while they were enjoying colonial days in India, when the tea plantations started there. Just ten or fifteen years prior to today, Nepal was importing CTC (granular) types of tea for general consumption; but now it is producing at a self-sufficient level, even though the average per capita consumption is just 200 grams per year. But the tea heritage is gradually developing from east to west in Nepal as the most common means of hospitality in the workplace and for daily use at home.
In the eastern hilly districts of Nepal such as Ilam, Pancthar, Dhankuta, and Taplejung they produce orthodox teas; whereas in Jhapa, Assamica varieties are grown for CTC. But gradually tea cultivation is spreading in 28 districts of Nepal. This includes up to Kaski near Pokhara, under the watershed of the Annapurna mountain ranges. As of 2020, Nepal has 14,160 tea gardens; out of which only 1 percent are under the medium and large scale. The remaining 99 percent belongs to small farmers. With regards to the ownership, medium and large gardens account for around 42 percent of the total tea cultivation areas (7,060 ha), whereas small farmers’ share of tea cultivation area consists of 58 percent (9,845 ha).
Tea is one of the major economic sectors that engages rural labor intensively, mostly women. All throughout the year it has great importance on employment and helps redistribute urban income to the disadvantaged segments of society. Per the Nepal Tea and Coffee Development Board (NTCDB), in 2019 alone Nepal produced 14,977,300 kgs of CTC and 9,140,972 kgs of orthodox tea, with a total export value of US $ 23 million. Around 80 percent of the orthodox teas are exported to India at very cheap prices due to the lack of organic production processes and related certification.
In the last 5 to 10 years, Nepal also started producing specialty teas such as silver and golden needle, white and golden, oolong, green, and so on. These are basically crafted teas which require very intensive labor. In most cases two layers of plucking occurs before it goes to fermentation and drying. During the specialty tea production season, family members in rural households are busy in green fields plucking in the daytime, and then sorting the same leaves until late evening at home. In this way, some women are earning up to 25 to 30 thousand Nepalese rupees a month. If special consideration is made in terms of marketing, branding, and packing, the specialty tea really brings the image of Nepal up together with the natural health benefits.
Nepalese tea production and sales encounter several challenges. There is no direct access to international markets, defined quality consistency, organic methods of production, or certification processes. There is inadequate human resources for manufacturing, research, enhancing productivity, and so on.
However, tea—as one of the major market-led cash crops of Nepal—is in the process of becoming an effective means of social transformation. It helps support development of education, maintaining the livelihood and socio-cultural networks for the small farmers and tea laborers. Tea gardens spread over the rolling hills of Nepal have direct connections with agro-ecological development and environmental conservation. Tons of carbon sequestering and conservation of soil erosion from the steep mountains are by-products, with these difficult to factor in or calculate only by looking at the lush green of the tea gardens.
Author Narendra in a tea field in Nepal
The total potential area for tea cultivation of Nepal has yet to be studied. The present tea cultivation areas (16,905 ha) are much lower than the total feasible areas. If we could fully explore the total areas and convert more land for tea cultivation, surely it would support a significant transformation of Nepalese people towards prosperity.
Producing a cup of tea is not only the experience of that one cup of tea – the different aroma and taste experience. It also represents the cultural heritage of Nepal, and symbolizes the Nepalese people at large.
Narendra Kumar Gurung – Tea Farmer, Ilam, Nepal
Highlanders Farmers Private Limited Facebook Page
Narendra is a tea farmer and producer, both growing tea and conducting development work on a local co-op-style processing theme. His previous career related to working for a Japanese government foreign aid agency based in Nepal.
Images provided and copyright held by author