Tea as a catalyst for social change – Food Tank
Based in eastern Nepal, the Nepal Tea Company strives to create a more transparent and fair supply chain from tea farm to consumer.
When Nishchal Banskota’s father founded the Kanchanjangha Tea Estate in 1984, he wanted to lift his community of Phidim, in eastern Nepal, out of poverty. After taking over the estate in 2016, Banskota is still working towards the goal.
“Tea is not just a drink. It’s a catalyst for social change,” Banskota told Food Tank.
In 2016, Banskota inherited the estate and launched Nepal Tea. The company sells organic teas hand-picked on the estate at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga. They pack the teas in hand-woven biodegradable bamboo and ship internationally.
Although bamboo packaging is more time-consuming and labor-intensive, tea from Nepal can employ a larger share of the community. Banskota believes that consumers are willing to pay higher prices for products with greater social benefits. When it comes to business decisions, “improving communities is always a factor,” says Banskota.
Through vertical integration, Nepal Tea reports that it can better control the entire supply chain, from farm to consumer. The company partners with regional tea producers, helping them ensure the quality of their teas, as well as distributing a greater share of revenue to producers. Banskota told Food Tank, “We view their product as a work of art and science and respect tea producers as artists.”
In 2019, the company launched the Nepal Tea Foundation with the aim of expanding access to education and employment in its community through three key areas: poverty, literacy and community growth. The company’s current goal is to lift 1 million farmers out of poverty this generation. Transforming itself into a public benefit organization, Banskota tells Food Tank, holds Nepal Tea to a high degree of accountability and transparency. “We want to be held accountable.
Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world after water, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and tea consumption has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nepal Trade and Export Promotion Center estimates that Nepal produces over 52 million pounds of tea annually.
According to the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication, many tea farmers in Nepal face a number of challenges, including minimum wage compensation, insufficient food and housing, inadequate equipment and exposure to strong pesticides without personal protective equipment.
A survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Nepal Tea and Coffee Development Council reveals that 3 million workers are engaged in the tea industry in Nepal, but only 3,000 are permanent workers. Without permanent work status, temporary workers cannot access the minimum wage. The survey also reveals that tea industry executives often do not follow Nepalese laws that allow workers to obtain permanent status after 240 days. These issues disproportionately affect women who make up over 74% of the tea industry workforce.
In response to these issues, Banskota tells Food Tank that since the company’s inception, company executives have wondered how can we create thriving and sustainable communities in tea-growing regions?
The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis have presented additional hurdles to this issue, including greater economic vulnerability and declining productivity.
At the start of the pandemic, Nepal Tea responded by establishing a relief fund for tea farmers and their families. With the relief fund, Nepal Tea provided 100 community members with housing, 2,400 scholarships and 182 cows as additional sources of income.
According to Banskota, the company is also hearing from farmers that the climate crisis is threatening tea production. Nepal Tea farmer partners are reporting unprecedented drought and hailstorms that are driving down productivity and jeopardizing farmers’ livelihoods. “Farmers tell us they have lost almost 15% of their yields due to hailstorms.”
But tea farmers can also be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Research in the Environmental Management Journal finds that each acre of tea has the potential to sequester more than 31,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to removing nearly 7,000 vehicles from the roads. Nepal Tea farmers also never use chemicals such as pesticides or fertilizers, and the company is helping them achieve organic certification.
Looking ahead, Nepal Tea plans to hire new underrepresented tea farmers, plan more events to engage tea farmers with consumers, diversify its crops and introduce new spices and herbs, and open a school. The company is also working on creating a blockchain ledger system to give consumers more information about each product. This represents a key part of what they call a radical movement for transparency.
The company hopes that creating a more transparent and fair supply chain will have ripple effects across the entire tea industry. “Tea is just the beginning,” Banskota told Food Tank.
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Photo courtesy of Nepal Tea