India's Tea Trade Features New Brew
India's Tea Trade Features New Brew

India's tea trade has not changed much since the British started cultivating it there nearly two centuries ago.  But changes are brewing.

Flourishing coop

Workers pluck fresh shoots from the tea bushes in the misty hills of Darjeeling.  This is the capital of India's tea industry.  But the small-scale farmers and laborers rank among India's poorest.  So now, they are trying to earn a better living by producing their own organic tea.

Bandana Rai is one of them.  She has joined a new tea cooperative called Organic Ekta.  The coop has ballooned from just 20 members three years ago to nearly 300 today.

Rai says she has more than tripled her income by getting better prices for her tea leaves.  She used the extra money to build a new kitchen and enroll her two teenage sons in better schools.  Organic Ekta was launched about three years ago with the help of U.S.-based NGO Mercy Corps and Tazo, the tea arm of Starbucks.

"It has given new hope, now and for the future," says Rajah Banerjee, a fourth-generation tea estate owner and one of Organic Ekta's main buyers.


He says Darjeeling's tea industry has been in decline for years.  Banerjee says Organic Ekta and other tea cooperatives are a good thing.  He has started offering shares of his Makaibari Tea Estates to his employees, essentially making them partners.

"To get people to be self-respecting, grass-roots entrepreneurs is the only way out," notes Banerjee. "If it is your own cow, you know how best to milk it."

But some analysts question whether the cooperatives, such as Organic Ekta, can survive without strong backers such as Mercy Corps and Tazo.

Viable option?

Tea worker cooperatives appear to work well for the region's small-scale organic tea farmers.  But is it viable for the industry as a whole?

Sanjay Sharma manages the Glenburn Tea Estates, one of the largest in Darjeeling.

"We have tried going organic and we found it hard to break even," says Sharma. "We have to make enough tea and the tea has to fetch a price that will enable us to sustain the industry."

Sharma says organic teas have much smaller yields and are expensive to produce.  He says the Organic Ekta model would not work for  India's entire tea industry.

But Chai Project director Rubin Prabhan disagrees.

"The Indian tea industry needed reform," Prabhan says. "We all believe that Organic Ekta is the change that the Darjeeling tea industry needed.  And this could be the future of Darjeeling tea."

Prabhan says one day tea associations could own their own factories to process and package their teas and make even better profits from the tea headed for the shelves of a market near you.