By Samantha Molineaux-Graham
Nepali orthodox tea is considered some of the finest in the world, however its availability outside its own borders is extremely restricted. As one of the world’s poorest countries, Nepal simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to effectively manage a profitable export business. Growers possess less-than-adequate marketing and distribution expertise and have very little understanding of Western markets; the lack of cost-effective shipping is an additional barrier.
EXPO Session: Win Win Win: Value, Virtue and You – Nepali Tea
Following last year’s devastating earthquake, in which more than 8,000 Nepali lives were lost and from which the country hasn’t nearly begun to recover, an equally devastating manmade crisis occurred: India imposed an embargo on imports, closing the borders and creating a situation where nothing got into this landlocked country. While that particular situation has recently eased, it doesn’t change the fact that the people are desperate and, even with some of the most optimal tea regions in the world and the finest teas, the industry is marginalized. Tea workers live in poverty and, because most tea exports wind up in India, Nepalese growers simply take whatever they can get from their neighboring buyers; profit margins are desperately low.
“In Bardu, in the region of Ilam, growers are at the mercy of the Indian tea market,” says Jeni Dodd, CEO and Founder of Jeni’s Tea, a New York-based company that sources tea from Nepal (and elsewhere) and promotes tea appreciation through education, tastings and providing high-quality, handcrafted artisanal tea. Dodd has an apartment in Kathmandu and spends a great deal of time in rural Nepal, meeting with tea farmers, merchants and villagers. Processing facilities are few and far between, and, if they exist at all, are very basic, she explains. Indian merchants buy the Nepalese tea direct from the growers and process it themselves. “But they keep reducing the price. The price has dropped by a full 50% this year, compared to last year,” she said.
Dodd is leading a charge to fund the building of processing facilities closer to the Nepalese villages where tea is grown, so that local growers have greater control of the product and can build a more sustainable industry. “We’re about two years away from getting processing facilities in Bardu,” she says.
By promoting Nepalese tea in North America, Dodd hopes to create a demand for these fine teas and, in turn, work with groups in Nepal to build a consortium of growers who can supply to the North American market. At the same time, it’s necessary to form a large enough group of American buyers where a sizeable shipment can be distributed among them. “Shipping costs are prohibitively high on low-level exports,” she explains. “The aim is to ship larger quantities and thus provide a profitable business model for the growers and the buyers.” She recognizes that creating a market is anything but a quick fix, and that the current poverty situation is extreme, however, she is determined long-term solutions such as this will be of greatest help to the Nepalese people and their tea industry.
“Many Western tea drinkers don’t even know that Nepal is a separate entity,” says Dodd. “Nepal has not done a great job of creating an identity for its teas. Yes, they’re similar to Darjeeling, but there are some very unique flavors that you won’t find in any teas anywhere else in the world. When it’s lumped in with Indian tea, it’s hard to create a market.”
Maggie Le Beau is another American doing her best to promote Nepali tea. Her three-year-old company, Nepali Tea Traders, was originally formed to import Nepalese tea to North America, and has grown into a social entrepreneurship that helps a wider swathe of Nepali people through reinvesting in education, helping Nepal to build a tea economy, and establishing its teas on the world map.
“People say Nepalese teas are some of the finest in the world, so why aren’t more of them sold? Right now their exports are in the low hundreds of millions of dollars; compare that with Kenya, which exports more than a billion dollars of tea a year,” says Le Beau.
She points to language and currency problems as some of the major hurdles, which create almost insurmountable difficulties with providing tea by mail order to small wholesale customers or consumers in the West. “I realized that they really needed a company created in the United States to make that happen,” she says. “As a team, we’re helping to stimulate demand for Nepalese tea and create interest, and our aim is to push that number to over a billion dollars in the coming years.”
Le Beau noticed that the average Nepalese family spends most of its money on education and healthcare. They want to educate their children and they want to raise themselves out of poverty, but it’s always just out of reach, she says. “But if you start treating them fairly and you sell their tea without a middle man (India), they get more money and we see the farmers being able to send their children to school. The tea industry in Nepal is so connected to the future of Nepal.”
Like Dodd, Le Beau is invested in the idea of creating a cooperative, to give growers a share in a local tea factory. Nepali Tea Traders is working with a cooperative model called Sandakphu (named after the Himalayan mountain), a small factory that has so far produced three award-winning teas that Nepali Tea Traders imports.
Production, she reports, is bouncing back from the recent drought that affected the first flush (both in Eastern Nepal and in India’s Darjeeling region) earlier this year. When the rains eventually came, they created an early second flush that is currently showing great potential.
It is clear that Nepal and its people have touched the hearts of these two American tea pioneers, committed to improving the lives of the Nepalese people as well as enjoying and promoting their tea. “Nepal is such a beautiful, magical, mystical land,” says Le Beau. “They are beautiful people with a wonderful, gracious culture.”
“Nepal gets into your heart and soul,” says Dodd. “I desperately want to help this country succeed. That’s my number one thing. The people are amazing and they have a tremendous sense of independence.”
Jeni Dodd, CEO and Founder of Jeni’s Tea, will present “Win Win Win: Value Virtue and You – Nepali Tea” at the World Tea Expo, Friday June 17, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m. She will be offering tastings of several teas, including the first flush from Everest Tea, a tea garden in Bhotechaur in the Sindhupalchok district (the epicenter of the recent earthquake) that hasn’t produced tea in more than 25 years.
Maggie Le Beau, Founder and CEO of Nepali Tea Traders, will present the Nepal segment in the World Origin Tasting Tour at the World Tea Expo, Tuesday June 14, 8 a.m.–5 p.m.