There is much that was discussed during my short time in Malawi.  The primary reason I was there was to help provide a framework and information on the Canadian tea industry and opportunities within the specialty tea sector.  But all in all, there were a lot of goals that were tossed around – empowering smallholders, acquiring a living wage for workers, empowerment of women.

All of these concepts are lofty and worthy.  But they are not simple goals nor are they goals that can be achieved in isolation.  Because every country faces similar challenges when trying to address these issues.

Let’s start with living wages.  Living wages, by definition, is the amount of money required to live based on the actual cost of living – it is not the minimum wage.  We like, in the west, to go to developing countries – or in the tea industry, producing countries – and reprimand them for not providing their workers with a living wage.  But let’s for one moment take a step back.  The living wage in Toronto is about $18.50/hr.  The minimum  wage is $11.25.  Slight disconnect.  We rank 12th out of 17 peer countries when it comes to income inequality.

Let’s look at the empowerment of women.  Are women in producing countries in positions of power…likely not.  In Canada however, according to the last numbers collected by Statistics Canada, women represented 47.2% of the workforce.  When it comes to income earned however, women earn $0.72 to every dollar earned by a man and in 2014 there was only one woman CEO on the Canadian TSX.  Again – disconnect.

When we look at issues such as living wages, the empowerment of women and increased prices for smallholders, we need to be genuine about our intentions – and by that I mean, looking at realistically and honestly, the entire picture.  The tea industry is made up of multiple layers – starting with the smallholder (the farmer that grows green leaf and sells it to the producer), producers (who take that green leaf and manufacture it to a made product, the buyers (who purchase that made tea and sell it to various packers on the international tea market), the packers (who pack that made tea, often adding value by blending, into teabags, boxing and making it market ready), the retailers (who purchase the finished product to put on their grocery store shelves), the consumer (who purchases the product for final consumption).  So how can we look at only one portion of this chain and try and fix a problem(s) that is far more complex than we sometimes like to pretend it is.

I’ve shown you that living wages and the empowerment of women are issues faced throughout the world…not a simple problem.  So how can we assume that it is a simple problem in producing countries.  Prices paid for tea are part of an entire chain, so again, how can we assume that it can be fixed by only looking at one link in the chain.

When consumers in the west have been conditioned to shop for bargains – looking for 2 for 1 deals on their tea, purchasing a box of 100 teabags for $5, where do we think the margin is on that product?  When retailers are selling that box of 100 teabags for $5, how much do we think they are willing/able to pay the packer who has made that product?  How much do we think is left for that packer to pay the buyer.  And how much is left from that piece of the pie for the buyer to pay the producer and in the end…the producer to pay the smallholder.  And yet we continue to go at the producers in developing countries accusing them of not paying smallholders enough for their green leaf.  And the truth is that they don’t.  But the problem didn’t start there.  The problem is with us.  Discount shopping = Discount wages.

It is each and every one of us that is a part of the problem.  And until we accept that responsibility, all attempts at solving the injustices we see will continue to fail.

 

 

There is something about being on a tea plantation that warms teagirl’s heart. It’s always a reminder of the true core and purpose of the business we all work in. Walking through tea fields. Seeing tea pluckers. Seeing the work being done in the factory; and hearing the tea garden manager speak. These are all the elements that are at the fundamental core of our business.

Today teaigrl’s heart was indeed warmed – as we visited a truly special tea estate – Satemwa. It traces it’s history back to1928, when Maclean Kay, came from Scotland and purchased land from a tobacco farmer in order to produce tea.

For teagirl, what was most fascinating about Satemwa however, is in what it has done in creating a truly unique specialty tea line; what they call ‘Farm Stall’. I know, Malawi is not the country we associate with specialty tea. And teagirl does admit that she was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see the selection laid out for us to taste. From white to green to oolong and black, smoked tea, aged post-fermented tea and even herbals.

When I saw the selection, I did assume that they had brought in a specialist from one of the producing countries to help develop this line. But they had not. What was in front of me was a true labour of love. A recognition of the opportunity within this ever growing sector and a commitment to making it work with the varietals that exist.

Alexander, the grandson of Maclean, has created truly special teas that stand proud to what they represent. A white tea that is delicate and smooth. A green tea that is vegetative with a subtle sweetness. An oolong that is toasty and nutty. All however, with it’s own unique quality of being from Malawi.

The estate also does a lot of work with smallholders – small growers that sell their green leaf to the factory – which in and of itself is not unique to the Malawian model. What Satemwa does however that is unique is maintain the connection to that smallholder in its end product. So a beautiful leaf black tea that can be traced back to a particular grower in the region.

I raise my hat to the work being done on this estate. They have created a model based on sustainable agricultural practices, catering to the traditional tea industry as well as establishing this uniquely Malawian specialty tea brand.

Chapeau! To each and every one involved. Because today, it was not only teagirl’s heart that was warmed for being on a tea estate; but it was also an important lesson: you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.

As most of you know, I teach a lot of tea classes…and give a lot of talks on tea.  The one thing I premise all my talks with is the following:  ‘I do not know everything about tea.  Nobody does.  Remember that humility’.  And today, I think, every single person that was a part of our events, was reminded of that.

I led an afternoon session today in Malawi, hosted by the Tea Association of Malawi, attended by Managing Directors, Buyers and Growers of the tea estates – on cupping (tasting tea) as well as food pairing.  What could teagirl possibly teach people who have been in the industry far longer than I have??  That, I am certain, was the thought on everyone’s mind as they came to the event.

Our afternoon started with a cupping – as you see in the picture above.  Not a cupping of teas from Malawi, as was perhaps expected.  But a cupping of the large variety of teas we enjoy in the North American market – white, green, oolong, black, jasmine, lapsang soughong, pu-erh.  With some skepticism and a lot of curiosity, everyone, smelled and tasted – and enjoyed.  Full of questions about teas they are not normally exposed to.

We followed the cupping with another new approach to tea – tea and food pairing.  This time with teas from Malawi.  Explaining the principals behind flavour and pairings, I took my audience through options and ideas and combinations.  Were there raised eyebrows at this new approach?  Yes.  Were they however eager to try it and be open to it?  Again…yes!

The afternoon then took a turn, it was the turn of the Tea Association of Malawi to feature the teas of Malawi – preparing a cupping (tea tasting) of what they had to offer.  And teagirl tasted – and teagirl was full of questions…and teagirl learned.  I am richer for it.

That is the humility I want all of us to remember.  This industry is so rich and so vibrant – and it remains that way so long as we remember that we all have something to learn from eachother.

13221422_463435750447866_9126277008027748286_o

 

Teagirl is on another adventure.  This time my journey takes me to far away Africa – specifically…Malawi.  A small landlocked country towards the south-eastern corner of Africa. Why Malawi, teagirl?  Because Tea is the second largest export for Malawi.  Because Malawi represents about 3% of the world’s tea production.  3% may not seem like much….but consider this, Japan, which most of you think of as being central to the specialty tea market, makes up a poriton of 1% of the entire world production.  That’s right, not even a whole percentage – a portion of 1%.  So yes, we need to pay attention to some of these countries not on our radar producing beautiful teas.

There are a number of reasons I am here.  And I hope you come on this journey with me.  Because it’s a journey not only in understanding the value of tea from Malawi – beyond what it is being used for now…largely blending.  But also in dissecting some of the challenges we face within the tea industry – empowering women, younger workers (18-34) and providing living wages for workers.

This journey started as all should, which is a taste of the beautiful country of which I am a guest for the next few days.  A rocky drive up to the Zomba plateau – witnessing the majestic beauty of a country relatively small compared to some of its neighbours.

malawi2

Malawi may not be rich by our modern measures of rich.  But it is rich in so many more ways.  It is rich in beauty.  It is rich in history.  And it is rich in the kindness of its people.  It was the pioneers within the great African continent to start with tea, but it has today, many challenges facing it.  Challenges, that many producing countries within the tea industry face.

Stay with me on this journey.  Discover some of the beautiful flavours produced out of Africa.  And I hope that along the way, together, we’ll try to muddle our way through the complexities that face this fragile labour market producing your beautiful cup of tea.

Mark Twain wrote that “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most artistic materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”.  I have taken you all on my journey through India and have tried to share with you the passions and the people that welcomed me to their homes for two weeks.  But in the end they are only words on a screen.  Because the true value of what I experienced in India is in my heart.

I am slightly at a loss for words in wrapping up this trip for you all.  And for those of you that know teagirl…that’s saying a lot!  So let me just say thank you.  Thank you to every single planter, estate manager, superintendent for the dedication and commitment you made me feel.  Thank you to every smiling tea picker that patiently showed me how to properly pluck a leaf.  Thank you to every factory that allowed me to experience every step of what it takes to produce this leaf – tea.

Thank you to every small producer that is keeping the traditions alive.  Thank you to estates that have been operating through generations of commitment out of a duty to their past and a duty to the future.

I saw with my eyes and felt in my bones the sincerity and pride with which I was greeted everywhere I went.  I felt with my hands and tasted with my mouth, the dignity in each leaf picked and processed to make its way into my cup of tea.  The Chinese and Japanese speak of Teaism and Daosim and that ‘tea is a cup of humanity’.  I now understand fully that short sentence.  Because humanity is what was shouting as the message for me to hear, even though it is a gentle whisper that is simply a part of the fabric of existence in this vast and beautiful country.

Thank you beautiful India.  In the words of Raj, our patient driver…’this is India…and in India…anything is possible’.   And he was right, anything was possible…including what teagirl expected the least…India settling in a piece of my heart.

NAMASTE

 

As you have all seen and heard, many estates were visited on my adventure in India.  I’ve talked endlessly about the kindness and the hospitality.  I’ve told you about specific people and estates to which I am truly grateful for how well they took care of us.  Harishpur, who I told you about in my last post, went so far as actually opening up their home to us to stay at.  As did Amgoorie and Borbam in Assam.  It’s these last two estates and specifically the company they belong to that I want to share with you today.

Goodricke is a large company that calls itself ‘The Tea People’.  They incorporated in India in 1977 and have since become the home to some of the finest names in tea estates in India.  I was fortunate enough to visit five of their estates between Darjeeling and Assam.

In Darjeeling, I cherished the teas I tasted at Thurbo, Castleton and Margaret’s Hope.  All estates that I have loved and coveted for as long as I have been drinking teas from Darjeeling.  In Assam the hospitality was further extended when Amgoorie and Borbam actually opened the doors to their homes for us to stay the night.  A dinner was hosted which included the most wonderful musicians as well as the welcoming dance by the beautiful tea pluckers.  Yes, teagirl danced again, this time barefoot in the grass.

As if all this wasn’t enough, in between our travels from Darjeeling to Assam, Mr. Arun Singh, CEO of Goodricke, welcomed us with a beautiful dinner at the Goodricke house in Kolkata.

Why am I listing all this for you?  Because it’s important for everyone to appreciate and understand the warmth and dedication that I experienced.  And this extended from the small estates we visited right up to the ones owned by an enormous company such as Goodricke.  These people LOVE this industry.  And if you can’t see that when you’re there, you are truly blind.  From the commitment they declare to their gardens, the shiny floors in the factories you could truly eat from, to some of the most beautifully crafted teas, the love is prevalent.

Thank you Goodricke, for setting a high bar, it was inspiring to see and experience.

I have to admit that in the form of leadership, women were few and far between on my journey in India.  Women are of course an integral part of the tea industry, but the people running the factories and tea estates we visited, were all men.  Until of course we got to Harishpur in Assam and met Suparna Bagchi.  To say that Ms Bagchi operates Harishpur by herself would not be telling the whole truth.  Her cousin, Sumit is an integral part of developing the business aspects.  But if you ever doubt the fact that a business can have a beating heart and a glowing soul, then you must visit the tea estate in Assam.

Suparna Bagchi took over the estate when her father passed away.  The presence of her mother and father and the impact they have clearly had on the woman she is today can be seen in the many photographs of both throughout the grounds.  Nothing however is more powerful than hearing Ms Bagchi speak of ‘her’ gardens, her ‘workers’, ‘her’ plants.  She climbs into her Jeep every day and drives throughout the estate stopping to pluck with her workers.  Yes – she plucks tea with her workers.  And when she isn’t able to be out in the gardens for a few days, her workers start asking after her and worrying about what has kept her away.

Harishpur not only creates beautiful teas, the golden tips being teagirl’s favourite, but they have developed and entire community that continues to give back.  From the primary school to the hospital to the community centre; and yes, even to the Keya Bagchi Foundation dedicated to her mother.  The foundation organises local women and teaches them to weave and craft selling their goods then back into the community.  Believe it or not…teagirl did try her hand at the loom and has decided to stick with tea instead!

As a woman, I take great energy from women, and there is truly only one word I can use to describe Suparna Bagchi – FIERCE!  She is determined and strong, she is focused and dedicated.  She is the beating heart and glowing soul of this tea estate.

Returning to reality has been difficult and tea girl is itching to get back to telling you about her journey to India.  If I told you that the hospitality in India was overwhelming, I wouldn’t possibly do it justice.  You can imagine my face as we drove up to Dikom Estate in Assam to the beautiful colours of red and white, tea pluckers dressed in traditional costume performing a song for us.  To be specific, the Jhumar Dance, which is so delightful.  The happiest people singing a song of welcome to us.  If you think we were able to get away with not joining in, you are mistaken.  We held hands with the beautiful ladies and joined in their song of welcome and celebration.

You become overwhelmed by kindness when Indrajit Roy, the Vice President of Marketing for the Rossell Tea group changes his schedule in order to greet you at the estate.  And equally overwhelmed when Mr Bedi – the Managing Director for Rossell Tea and his beautiful wife, go out of their way to join you for a dinner.  These are friends and faces I see in North America, and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be able to visit them in their home – beautiful India.

Dikom is a vast and beautiful estate that is setting the bar within the Rossel group of tea companies when it comes to social services and care of their workers.  This has been a discussion we’ve had at a number of estates, but none illustrated it better than Samar Chaliha, Dikom’s Estate Manager.  In detail he went through the initiatives being taken to provide a healthy social network not only for the workers in the gardens and factory, but also for the children of the workers.

Oh, and yes, of course they have some of the most beautiful Assam teas.  This is where Golden Butterflies and Golden Pearls are made.  Two teas that were winners of the North American tea competition.  I have had the pleasure to taste these teas before, but believe me when I tell you that nothing is quite the same as drinking these teas with the people who have actually made them.

Teagirl took something very important away from the visit at Dikom – beautiful products and beautiful people all co-exist under one roof.  As their slogan goes:  To the world you are a person.  To a person you are the world.

Teagirl has been MIA for the past few days. Not because I didn’t want to share with you or had nothing to share with you, but rather because I was cut off from wifi – perhaps not a bad thing for a few days.

I entered Assam yesterday and as I told you in my last post – it is miles of the all around. Assam is the largest tea producing region in the world.  The flavours of the teas are very different than this if Darjeeling. First, they are all the Assamica tea plants rather than the Chinese one. Second, they are grown at low altitudes. The resut is a robust and full bodied tea that is quite often in your breakfast blends.

I will admit that I was not expecting the same stories and passions in the gardens of Assam, which is why the first stop was truly inspirational.  Heritage Tea Assam.  The Managung Director, Mr. Rajen Baruah, has been a professional tea planter for 30 years. He “believes the world is full of dreamers, hence, one should move ahead and take concrete steps to actualize ones vision”.

Mr Baruah runs this small piece if idealism with his wife June and two sons Ronnie and Ishan. The years of working for major corporations is what made Mr Baruah want to provide a place for small farmers to sell their tea at better prices. His belief and passion in the quality of the leaf that can be produced when people are not driven by purely quantity is the core of this beautiful business.

Providing a place for small farmers however isn’t all this family does. They are central to the nurturing of the virgin lands found north of Assam in the hills of Arunchul  Pradish. He has created his own machinery – small enough to be put in the homes of the locals allowing the women to perform the production while the men do the plucking and tending to the land. Quite a different dynamic than anywhere else in this industry.

And yes – the proof is in the liquor – the liquor of the tea that is. How could I possibly taste these teas and not drink in the commitment and integrity behind it. How could I just cup this tea looking purely for laboratory analysis. It would be an insult to what is happening here.

This family has committed their business to empowering others. And that is a gift that is truly priceless.

Darjeeling is behind me and I am now in Assam. The world’s largest tea producing region.  And I now understand fully as there is tea absolutely everywhere. The air feels tropical, the terrain is flat and all around for miles and miles you can see only tea bushes.

There has been much talk in the last few days on the merits or faults of what are called clonal teas. Please do not confuse that with genetically modified, because they are not. Cloning means taking a cutting off a mother bush, planting it, and from that grows a new tea bush.  The clonal is an exact replica of the mother bush.  Think Dolly the sheep.

Why do tea estates practise cloning?  Because a cloned bush yields a higher production.  It also produces a harvest of identical leaf characteristics.

The down side of cloning is that the cloned bushes have a shorter life span, and the flavours of the tea produced are not as high in quality as the original.

There are certainly arguments to be made on both sides, but this tea girl has a rather firm position.  Tea is a crop, it isn’t homogeneous, and yet we are trying to make it so.  In doing that, we are losing all the uniqueness, all the individuality, all the personality of the tea leaf.  I don’t want a homogenous product.

The need for tea estates to have high yield on crop, I fully empathize with. I caution however that that should not be done at the expense of the future. Over producing cloned plants that have shorter lives is forgetting that there is another generation to pass these gardens and these traditions on to.  We are all only temporary caretakers.

Celebrate the unique flavours, rejoice in the fact that no two cups of tea are the same.  Let’s stop trying g to create uniformity.  How dull the world would be if we were all the same.