Update on Coronavirus Impact on the Tea Industry

I never picked up a 2020 calendar for our household use, so, a few weeks ago, I simply canceled the year officially. At least in our kitchen.

calender COVID

As many of us continue to be under stay-at-home orders, the ramifications of COVID-19 are becoming clearer, broader, often scarier. We wonder what the lasting effects will be—on us personally, on us as human inhabitants of this world.

By looking at just tea—an agricultural crop that depends not only on weather but also on factors political, economic, pandemic—we get a glimpse of how one minute virus can impact, even ravage, a staggering number of individuals, economies, societies.

So here’s an update to my earlier look at how COVID-19 is affecting the tea industry.

South India is estimating a pandemic-caused loss of 23 million kilograms, worth some $47 million. Add to that the suspension of auctions—meaning that tea for both the domestic and export markets is sitting unsold—which means another $25 million gone. But even after production resumes, overgrown leaves will need to be removed from the plants before plucking can begin.

indian chai
Indian Chai

Assam restarted production this month with 50% of their workers so as to maintain distancing. However, during the complete lockdown, they lost nearly all the March harvest, with a loss of $183 million. And even though they are now able to work in the gardens, around a third of the gardens find they must first remove overgrown leaves, meaning additional crop losses in April and even May. Because Assam produces 52% of the country’s tea, this loss will be felt.

Assam tea (from left): Marangi, Mokalbari, Mangalam

Darjeeling‘s most prized tea is their first-flush, plucked in early spring, which begins in mid-February and runs to early April. Some leaves were harvested before India shut everything down, but because much of the world had already been closed, the tea couldn’t be sold.

On April 6, the secretary of the Darjeeling Tea Association, Kaushik Basu, estimated that if the Darjeeling gardens reopened for plucking that day, they would be able to save around 40% of the first-flush harvest. If they reopened on the 8th, they’d save only 15–20%. Even that, unfortunately, did not happen, meaning they’ve lost the rest of the first-flush harvest because after the first growth of the tea plants, the leaves are no longer “first flush,” those tender new leaves that are so valuable for tea. And that first plucking alone floats these gardens for half the year, demonstrating the high economic cost of the shutdown.

Darjeeling Steinthal

According to the Sri Lanka Tea Board, the country quickly resumed Ceylon tea production, although with safety precautions, and stakeholders were able to participate in the April 4 Colombo Tea Auction digitally, a first. The Colombo auction, the largest single tea auction in the world, is 126 years old and has always taken place in a physical location, but this year’s pandemic necessitated the move—often discussed but never fully acted upon until now—to an online version.

ceylon decaf
Ceylon, decaf

East Africa‘s tea industry has been hit with the suspension of the Mombasa tea auction, partly because the shipping industry has also been curtailed. According to The East African (4/3/20), “tea supports more than 600,000 livehoods [sic] ranging from farmers, brokers, warehouse owners from 10 countries in the region.” Globally, the Mombasa auction is second in size only to the Colombo auction, with over 95% of the tea sold here destined for export. This suspension, as of April 3, threatens a $250 million loss a week.

purple lvs cup
Purple tea from Kenya

China, having been the first to counter COVID-19, which, coincidentally, was largely at the time before tea production really gets underway, has resumed full tea production. However, transportation and other logistics remain problematic with much of the world still under full or partial lockdown.

China green teas
Chinese green teas (Lung Ching, Palace Needle, Gunpowder Temple of Heaven)

Transportation—no matter if by truck, train, ship, or plane—still is delayed or disrupted in many parts of the world as we all strive for social distancing, best practices, and continuation of business simultaneously. Prioritizing is more important than ever, as even evidenced by Amazon’s current policy to get staple items and medical supplies packed and shipped over unnecessary purchases.

ginger grapefruit

For the many of us staying at home as much as possible, we have time to reflect—on what do we spend our time, our energy, our resources? For what do we live? And, ever so importantly, for whom do we live?

Yes, a look at the tea industry can tell us a lot, but in the end, it’s always more than tea. It’s family, friend, stranger. It’s outreach and connection.

The East African, 4/3/20
Economic Times, India, 3/20/20, 4/4/20, 4/6/20, 4/15/20, 4/21/20.
The Sentinel, 4/21/20.
–Sri Lanka Tea Board, http://www.srilankateaboard.lk, accessed 4/21/20.  –”COVID-19: Coronavirus outbreak – impact on shipping *update,”
Industry News, North, 3/24/2020.

4 thoughts on “Update on Coronavirus Impact on the Tea Industry

    1. Yes, it’s very alarming to hear reports about how many agricultural crops are being lost, and to consider what that disruption of the food supply chain may mean for so many people worldwide.

      Liked by 1 person

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