The history of Nepali tea dates back to the early 1860s when Jang Bahadur Rana returned home with tea he got as a souvenir in China. Nepali tea is of good quality, is older than Ceylon tea and tastes like Darjeeling yet tea producers here, despite international demand for Nepali tea, are struggling to find ways to market it.
Nepal produces 11.7 million kg of tea annually from estates that grow on 15,000 hectares. Over 40,000 people either work on tea plantations or are directly reaping benefits from the industry. Figures gathered by the Tea and Coffee Global Development Alliance (TCGDA) of Winrock International Nepal suggest that since 1998 orthodox (leaf) tea production has grown at the rate of 17 percent a year.
Very little orthodox tea from the hills is consumed in Nepal where demand is mostly for tarai grown CTC-cut, tear and curl-tea, usually sold in the form of round globules.
But producers say Nepal has not been able to successfully market its tea products overseas. As a result they joined together to create a new brand 'Nepal Tea-Quality from the Himalayas' to spearhead their marketing efforts. They are hopeful the 'Nepal Tea' logo that is slated to hit markets soon will boost their exports.
Demand from Germany and the US for Nepali tea is growing, says TCGDA Team Leader Chandra Bhusan Subba at Winrock. Today, 13 of 15 tea producers in the country work together in Himalayan Tea Producers Corporation (HIMCOOP) to export the large quantities demanded. "When the producers realised the government was not doing much to brand and promote Nepali tea they decided to come together and form the corporation," said HIMCOOP Chairman Udaya Chapagain.
Tea producers and experts have been participating in trade shows, tea seminars and organising press conferences. Next month, Nepal growers will participate in the 'Tea and Coffee World Cup' in Hamburg, Germany.
With Winrock's help the corporation is also promoting tea in the United States and Germany. Winrock has also been talking to TAZO, the organisation of US organic tea producers, which recently bought 500 kg of Nepali tea and tested it in 6,000 Starbucks' outlets. If the organisation approves Nepali tea it will appear on store shelves either as TAZO tea under the 'Nepal Tea' brand or in a blended form. "Our partnership with TAZO is more about exposure than about selling large volumes to make profits," said Subba. TAZO's policy is to return five percent of profits to the area where the tea originated.
HIMCOOP has also been inviting potential buyers to deal directly with producers. "We contact buyers, send them samples, they test the samples and come to us if they want our product," Chapagain added. HIMCOOP also produces promotional flyers, manuals and booklets.
Dilli Baskota of Kanchanjunga Tea, one of two organic tea producers in the country, says growers can brand Nepali tea all they want but without quality, branding is futile. "Producers need to think long-term. They have to understand that Nepalis have been growing tea for nearly 200 years and plan for another 200 more."
Total production of organic tea today is 50-60 tons a year. Of this, over 90 percent is exported. To help ensure quality some Nepali tea producers have adopted a code of conduct, promising to live by stringent international guidelines. In return, they are permitted to use the 'Nepal Tea' logo. The codes also commit producers to grow environment friendly products by discouraging chemical pesticides and fertilisers, prohibits child labour and holds producers to respect gender issues. Producers who sign on must also permit inspections of their technology and product purity and adhere to record-keeping norms.
Sceptics within the government do not think the 'Nepal Tea' logo is going to aid promotion much. "Demand is high for loose Nepali tea that goes abroad in chests," says Madhav Dev Thapaliya of the Nepal Tea and Coffee Development Board. "Whether you brand that tea or not, the chest is going to be opened at some point somewhere and blended with other tea."
Winrock's Subba disagrees. He says tea for the mass market is of low quality and is often blended with different tea. High-quality tea for the niche market is sold differently. "There is a difference between 'blends of Darjeeling' and 'Darjeeling blend'," Subba explains.
Nepal's tea-growing area is increasing at the rate of 11 percent a year and the country can boast of virgin lands and young bushes that produce quality tea in large quantities. Producers say there is a huge potential for adding new varieties. Some predict the next big boom will be in organic tea. Winrock's Subba says the demand for organic tea is increasing daily and suggests, "All tea producers should start cultivating organic tea."
Thapaliya of the tea and coffee board says competition in organic tea has not yet picked up and that Nepal could be the country that fuels international demand for it.
Just his cup of tea
Suraj Vaidya's Guranse Tea Estate spreads across 250 hectares in Dhankuta at altitudes upto 2,000 m making it one of the highest tea estates in the world. Started in 1990 Guranse is one of two certified organic tea producers in Nepal and processes 40,000 kg of black tea a year.
Nepali Times: What are some of the achievements of the Nepali tea industry in recent years?
Suraj Baidya: Nepal's tea industry is as old as Darjeeling. Yet our first big milestone came with the advent of democracy. After privatisation in the 1990s Nepal for the first time appeared on the lists of international tea producers. Then we realised that hill tea producers were being neglected from all sides and we formed the Himalayan Tea Producers Association (HOTPA).
We understood that quality could be better but farmers lacked knowledge. We selected farmers from seven tea-producing areas and put them through rigorous training. They went back and trained 10 more farmers from their villages and the multiplier effect was quite big. Five years ago, we had estimated that Nepal would produce 1 million kg of tea per year by 2005. Today we have well surpassed that and are now producing 1.5 million kg. That to us is quite a feat. Beyond that, we have participated in seven trade fairs where we have showcased tea. We are going to Hamburg for the World Coffee and Tea Cup next month. Tea producers have understood that the planning should be for the long term. That is why we have been working on our code of conduct.
What challenges do you face?
Our biggest challenge right now is the security situation in tea estates ... there are many people directly and indirectly involved in tea production whose livelihood is hit due to bandas. (Also) we are one of the best tea producers in the world, but we have not been able to market our products well. Private tea producers are also frustrated with the Nepal Tea and Coffee Board. The minister is the chairman of the board. When governments change, a new chairman comes in-we have to start from square one. Government needs to put higher priority on tea production and let the private sector manage the board.
How do we brand Nepali tea?
We are not late tea producers, we are just late in marketing it. When you brand tea you need a story behind it. It is all about gimmick. Apart from trade shows to promote tea, we need logos and slogans that are catchy. We have to highlight the fact that our tea is branded, follows a stringent code of conduct and is of great quality. If we can brand the logo with the commitment to quality we can sell.
So does Nepali tea have a niche in the market?
Organic tea is big right now and will probably stay that way for a while but in the long run organic tea will lose. Sixty percent of the tea that is being sold in Europe is a blend of tea with fruits. To make a niche means not to have volume but variety. Since we have to fight for market share, we need to innovate. In the long run, new blends of tea with flowers, fruit products and herbs will win.