September Update: Coronavirus Impact on the Tea Industry

As the pandemic grinds on, many of us are seeing sometimes unexpected consequences. Odd items are out of stock at the grocery stores. Local contractors can’t find lumber. Some European businesses now ship to pretty much anywhere except the Americas.

Tea, being an agricultural product, continues to be impacted by weather conditions as well as everything that’s transpiring because of the pandemic. There’s both encouraging and discouraging news—and for workers who held marginal existences before COVID-19, little has improved and in many cases conditions have only deteriorated.

assam mokalbari
Assam Mokalbari

In the past couple months, tea-growing regions of Assam and West Bengal, India, were once again slammed with heavy rains that caused flooding and landslides, again disrupting production. At a tea plantation in Kerala, workers’ homes were buried by a night-time landslide.

Earlier this year, North Bengal and Assam lost most of their first- and second-flush. Tea shortages mean the price of tea has gone up an average of 25 to 40%, but production costs remain high and transportation remains disrupted.

Last year, the tea estates of North Bengal and Assam had produced 370 million kg of tea in the January–June period. According to industry estimates, this year the crop size will be around 235 million kg in the first six months, a shortfall of 135 million kg. (Ghosal 7/20/20)

Bangladesh ranks ninth in the world for tea production, but its already impoverished workers struggled even more with the pandemic. According to a July news report, some weren’t paid wages for work done as tea estates took a financial hit.

turkish teapot
Turkish teapot

Meanwhile, tea-drinking and tea-growing Turkey increased their January through July tea export by 43%! This translates into nearly 500 tons more tea than was exported in January through July of 2019.

Unilever (e.g., Lipton, PG Tips), on the other hand, has had losses in Kenya, even before the coronavirus hit, making those workers understandably nervous. The company is evidently restructuring the tea side of things, with business continuing in India and Indonesia. It’s still unclear how Kenya will be impacted.

And although Kenya‘s green leaf production—”the tea leaves plucked at a farm and later delivered to a tea buying centre ahead of processing at a tea factory” (Ndirangu 7/16/20)—did well in the January through June period, the pandemic severely impacted the country’s tea industry.

Prices fell, which triggered anger for some tea farmers, and the Kipchabo tea factory was raided. The pandemic, with its concomitant spotty transportation, also meant that less tea made it to Mombasa for auction and export—bad news because tea typically makes up 26% of Kenya’s export earnings.

ginger rooibos
Ginger rooibos

For some bright news, South Africa‘s rooibos industry has donated 78,000 cups of the beverage to healthcare workers who work in hospitals designated for COVID-19 patients. South Africa Rooibos Council spokesperson Adele du Toit explained:

Hospitals are filling up every day and frontline staff are working long hours to battle the virus day and night. Many of them are exhausted – both physically and mentally – and even have scars from wearing protective devices, but they keep soldiering on. Now more than ever, we want to show our gratitude by supplying them with a steady stream of Rooibos tea to remind them that we care. (Blignaut 8/27/20)

fancy peony
Fancy Peony white tea

In eastern China, many tea plantations, typically worked by local families, are struggling, trying to overcome restrictions on travel, transportation issues, and heavy rains simultaneously. Unlike in India and Sri Lanka, where the pandemic meant that less tea was produced, many gardens in China produced amounts comparable to last year—but now they can’t get their tea to those who want it. Furthermore, recent flooding in some areas damaged stored tea, processing equipment, and generators.

The transportation industry continues to adapt to demand. After dropping ocean freight shipping routes during the first part of the global pandemic, the industry has reactivated routes and increased capacity, although demand still is greater than what can be delivered for some routes. DHL (9/20) speculates that “European and US importers may currently be refilling their stocks as they fear new waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a flat market after the summer.”

airplane

The air freight industry has suffered greatly because cargo is generally put on passenger flights, which are practically nonexistent at the moment. According to Agility (9/4/20):

The demand for air freight is there, but the overall market is not back at pre-COVID levels. Global demand fell by 13.5% in July balanced out by a 25% to 30% capacity reduction because of the loss of passenger flights and widebody belly capacity. Rates have come down, but they’re still higher than pre-COVID-19 times, depending on weekday and on how urgent the shipment is.

Accenture (8/25/20) notes that:

Air cargo capacity slightly improved across almost all trade lanes. Despite this overall improvement, the Transatlantic still shows no signs of recovery. Global air cargo capacity is at its lowest decline since the peak decline week in March.

Meanwhile—with many people working from home, concerned about health, and wanting comforting rituals—tea is in greater demand than ever.

assam mangalam

Every cup that we drink, then, should serve as a gentle reminder that there are many people who worked to get tea into our hands—from the plucker to the processor to the packer to the shipper to the person who handed the product to us. Every cup links us to many, all of whom are also worried about making a livelihood and keeping well, who have hopes and aspirations just like us.

So let’s be kind to each other and look for the positive. And in that vein, check out this uplifting photo (a finalist for the Weather Photographer of the Year award), showing all the beauty of a tea garden awash in light.


Sources: Accenture, “COVID-19: Impact on air cargo capacity,” Accenture, 8/25/20; Agility, “Air freight update,” Agility Global Shipping, 9/4/20; Blignaut, C., “Rooibos industry donates 78 000 cups of tea to boost morale at hospitals as brave doctors and nurses battle the coronavirus pandemic,” Medpharm Publications, 8/27/20; Chepkoech, A. and B. Wasuna “60,000 employees uneasy as Unilever mulls exit,” Nation, 8/14/20; Daily Sabah with AA, “Turkey’s tea exports rise 43% in 7 months of 2020,” Daily Sabah, 8/16/20; Debinski, G., “Hard numbers,” GZero, /24/20; DHL, “Ocean freight market update—September 2020,” DHL Global Forwarding, 9/20; Ghosal, S. “Tea production down by more than 10% due to heavy rain, flooding in Assam and West Bengal,” The Economic Times, 7/20/20; Lazarus, N. “Tea plantation landslide kills 49 in India as more feared buried,” Sky News, 8/10/20; Matoke, T. and B. Bii, “Tea farmers storm factory, loot property over reduced prices,” Nation, 8/23/20; Ndirangu, W. “Green leaf production grows as tea prices drop,” Kenya News Agency, 7/16/20; Rozario, R. “Covid-19 intensifies misery of Bangladesh’s tea workers,” UCA News, 7/16/20; Xiaonan, W., “Reporter’s diary: Chinese tea struggles for survival amid the pandemic and summer floods,” CGTN, 8/26/20.

Teas shown here available at TeaHaus, Ann Arbor.

3 thoughts on “September Update: Coronavirus Impact on the Tea Industry

  1. I am amazed by the way you write about teas. Great photos and tempting teas, that make me run towards my kitchen and come back with a cup of tea. As i started writing my interested topic of foods & related science, i still don’t manage to write posts once a week (or even this time its been 15 days without a blog content). I have troubles with finding the right topic for my blog. All the while i read your blog on tea, and always get inspired with your topic selection! Hats off to you , and great work. Keep posting.

    1. Thank you for your very kind and encouraging words. And best of luck with your own writing. I think it’s so important for us to keep learning about what we eat and drink. There’s so much behind it all—from the efforts of individuals to the impact on the environment to the effects of climate change and to what constitutes the food item itself. Don’t worry about how many posts you get done; just enjoy the research and writing!

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