The connection between the Darjeeling tea industry of India and the tea workers and farms just across the border in Nepal has not been widely discussed or well understood by global tea consumers. But in the last five years, the relationship has become strained and problematic. And the recent announcement of bans on importing tea from Nepal into India is threatening the Nepali tea industry.
While India’s ban on imports is simply an issue of quality, Nepal’s case is much more severe and complicated. India holds the market for more than 50 percent of the 2.5 million kilograms of tea produced annually in Nepal (NTCDB). More recently, the issue was highlighted in the Indian parliament and has raised concerns with the Prime Minister of Nepal.
More than 15,000 smallholder farmers are directly cultivating tea in Nepal. More than 70,000 people are employed in the Nepali tea industry; 25% of the Gross Domestic Product is dependent on agriculture for Nepal, and tea contributes as it is one of the most exportable items. Currently, Nepal exports almost 50% of its tea production (including both CTC and orthodox), and here’s the shocker, 96.4% of the exports are to India.
The bigger shocker is that the average price for the teas is around $2.36 per kg. ($1 per lb) according to the data provided by Nepal Coffee and Tea Development Board.
Is this sustainable? I doubt it.
History of the Nepali Tea Industry
By sheer proximity, Nepal has a tea industry, in whatever state it may be now, because of India. While it’s true that the first tea seeds arrived in Nepal through its other giant neighbor China, most tea plants in Nepal have come from India.
Before the ’70s, there were no factories to process any teas in Nepal. The farmers were entirely reliant on selling fresh green leaves to India. Eventually, as more tea processing factories were established in Nepal, the factory owners chose to import many types of machines from India. Partly because and in consequence of these machinery imports, Nepali tea makers learned the art of tea making from Indian talents. Hence, since the beginning of their tea industry, Nepali teas have been guided by the Indian way.
1st Certified Organic Tea Garden in Nepal, Kanchanjangha Tea Estate – 1984
The Border Issue
The India-Nepal-China dynamics have always been dramatic. But I see this import export of tea as a sheer supply and demand issue. I’m not saying the political pretext isn’t important. I’m just saying that political issues come second to the economics of things.
India has a global market for tea, especially the teas from Darjeeling. Despite having a worldwide demand for its delicious teas, Darjeeling is a small area, and its very geography becomes the teas’ most significant barrier. India simply has more demand for Darjeeling tea than Darjeeling has the capacity to supply. The same is true for many teas produced in other regions of India.
Historically and economically, it makes sense for India to turn to Nepal to fulfill the demand. After all, the nature of machinery used, processing techniques, and even the climates of Ilam matched the Indian territory – especially Darjeeling. So the course of events happens to be that the majority of teas produced in Nepal were exported to India. Hence, the complete reliance on India for the majority of exports.
As awareness of Nepali tea grew in the tea world, the situation has always been pretty obvious to me. Nepal is a landlocked country. This simple fact is one of the major challenges to the country’s export capabilities. We literally can’t ship things worldwide. So turning to India has been the easy way of doing things.
The Opportunity in the Ban
While India’s intention to ban Nepali tea imports will be a big hit, the optimists in Nepal have been lauding this as an opportunity, but the ones whose livelihoods depend on exports are scared. One of the major discourses here is the possibility of finding a new market for Nepali teas in China. While this could be a great thing, I wonder if relying on yet another neighbor for the country’s major export is the smartest choice. The fear of losing a major source of income through exports is real, but turning to China as a short terms fix might invite similar dependency and an inevitable repeat of events.
I am looking forward to a better alternative, a more reliable and sustainable solution to finding the “right” market for Nepali teas. As someone who drinks Nepali tea every single day and works with Nepali tea makers for my own bread and butter, I know that Nepal has the talents and the skills to make the global market it’s market.
Nepali tea and its makers need a little more support and guidance to navigate the global market. The Nepali government needs to empower its farmers and provide them with opportunities to create better teas to add value to an already great product and turn towards not just exporting them for the sake of income but launching itself as a geographical indicator, a global brand.
Roles of Global Tea Companies
I run a public benefit corporation from America called Nepal Tea Collective. And creating a global identity for Nepali teas has been my personal mission for the past six years. Yes, it’s ambitious, and some have even called it impossible for me to represent a country. My company is alone now in this mission, but I believe it won’t be the case in the next decade or even next year.
Nepal Tea Collective has been adding value to Nepal through small but important decisions. All of our final packaging is done in Nepal. We partner with the farmers directly. We only partner with 100% organic smallholder farmers. But we’re tackling issues bigger than just one country.
There’s no denying bulk selling to a neighboring country is the easier option for Nepal. But the reliance is problematic and, dare I say, borderline toxic. The ones getting hurt are almost always the farmers. They are always getting crushed and encircled in a vicious cycle of poverty and can’t break free from it. The exotic Nepali teas either get mixed with the identity of their neighbors or just don’t create their own identity at all.
The problem isn’t limited to teas. This is the case for almost every other product, medicinal and Ayurvedic in nature.
Creating a Global Tea Collective
Therefore, with a small step but a big vision of creating a global brand for tea and, possibly in the future, other herbs and botanicals, I am marching on to create a global brand for our teas and calling it Nepal Tea Collective. It is defined as a collective because it is no longer just a single owner but a collective of farmers, consumers, and everyone in the middle.
With Nepal Tea Collective, the producer’s story does not get lost. Instead, it shines on every single packet. Each packet tells the story of the complete supply chain and the stories of the farmers and brings to light the people who have, for the majority of our history, remained invisible – the Nepali Tea Producers. Each pack of Nepal Tea Collective teas is the beginning of the story. Our customers get a unique experience of meeting their tea makers, traveling to the tea gardens, supporting farmer communities, and planting tea saplings. I’m not joking. Read the ripple effect of every purchase of Nepal Tea Collective here.
So if you think our mission to bring Nepali tea talents to the forefront of the global market is essential, then you have an opportunity to become part of the change. We are open to investments from anyone in the world. Anyone who believes in the vision of creating a home-grown brand of Nepali teas is welcome to invest in the company and make it their own. You can find more information about this on our Wefunder campaign.
Founder / CEO
We think our founder Nishchal’s fate in the tea world was sealed when he was born in a tea garden. Sure he tried to take destiny into his own hands and went to a liberal arts college in the US to become a CPA, but a trip back home after graduation changed all that. In 2016, he returned to the US a chiyawala, a tea man with a plan…