The World’s Tea Industry: Fall 2021 Snaphots

As fallout from the pandemic continues, many in the tea industry are using new tactics to maintain and increase their customer base; are adjusting to a changing market, especially as supply chain and shipping continue to be problematic; and are looking for ways to reduce production costs.

According to shipping company DHL, ports are again badly congested, and as we head into the holiday season, “the liner market is already sold out and carriers are largely unable to procure the additional tonnage that would be needed to launch any real peak-season service programs.”

In fact, the DHL Air Freight market update states that

port congestions, astronomical ocean rates along with inventory restocking continues to divert previously ocean reliant cargo to air.

The demand for air freight is thus even higher. Capacity has increased, yet August 2021 was still 22% lower than August 2019. And although airlines attempt to increase capacity, flights continue to be canceled as Covid disrupts service still.

airplane

Couple these problems with the ongoing shortage of truckers, and consumers may well see fewer tea ware—and possibly even tea—options this holiday season, or costs may be higher.

To minimize further loss and to improve profits, those in the tea industry have turned to various strategies. Here are a couple examples.

Africa

Innovation is key to the Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa. They propose fertilizing by drone rather than airplane, or by adding fertilizer directly to irrigation water, to significantly lower costs. Drones could also be used to apply pesticides and herbicides. 

In Kenya, there’s been a move to machine rather than hand plucking. Proponents argue that the tea is cheaper to produce; the CEO of the Kenya Tea Growers Association maintains that production cost is some 40% less, which means that gardens will remain viable.

On the flip side, many workers have already lost their jobs, which can destabilize communities. Union rep Jared Momanyi said that in Bomet, located in Kenya’s tea belt, employee numbers plummeted from 50,000 to 5000–7000.

Bomet County, along with two others in Kenya’s tea belt, also asked that multinational tea companies pay more for the land they use. They argued that these companies had been paying the same amount of money per acre for nearly 100 years! The price set in 1926 was Sh100 per acre—that’s 91¢ in US dollars. The counties were asking for around $90/acre. A settlement was recently reached but no price per acre was provided.

China

Even the birthplace of tea needs promotion, and technology increasingly plays a key role.

In Longnan, located in mountainous Gansu Province (north-central China), 5G technology has been arriving, which is a boon to tea growers who can now access environmental conditions in real time—and sell their products online. Customers can see where the tea was grown and how it was produced via QR codes on the packaging.

puer

A unique tea, Biluochun, or “green snail spring,” is grown in one specific region of China. Dating to the Qing Dynasty, this celebrated tea—hand plucked and produced in small batches—is one of China’s intangible cultural heritages (there are many teas so listed, as you may imagine). This past April, to bring attention to this tea and region, Suzhou in Jiangsu Province held a marketing campaign targeted at English speakers and accessed by Instagram, FaceBook, and Twitter.

India

Competition and sniping between Darjeeling and Nepal continue, with Darjeeling complaining that Nepal produces inferior tea that is being imported into India and passed off as Darjeeling.

Nepal’s tea gardens abut those of Darjeeling, and Nepali growers say their gardens have the same levels of sun, rain, and mist as Darjeeling, being located, after all, in the same mountain range. The Darjeeling industry, however, claims that “Darjeeling tea possesses a distinctive character and rare muscatel flavour owing to soil chemistry, terrain slope and scientific plucking” (Manna 9/19/21).

Well, yes, Darjeeling does have a geographical indication stamp, so there is a valid issue at hand. But if India is importing Nepali tea and blending it with Darjeeling, that isn’t entirely Nepal’s problem.

In fact, India’s January to June 2021 imports rose 176% (i.e., 4.42 million kg). The country imports inexpensive tea from Kenya and Nepal for re-export, according to The Economic Times, but this year a lot of this tea has been combined with India’s own tea and then sold domestically as Indian tea, but for less money. Indian producers understandably complain about this practice.

(Personal note: As to Nepal’s tea gardens, I can personally attest for the excellence of many Nepali teas, so I dislike the lumping of all Nepali teas into “inferior” tea. Denigrating a competitor doesn’t make one’s own product better.)

kashmiri chai

Besides trying to protect their brand, Darjeeling is looking for ways to boost their tea industry, which has taken a real hit the past few years. Some plantation owners are now promoting tea tourism, with West Bengal allowing them to use 15% of land devoted to tea for this purpose.

Meanwhile, in Assam, and capitalizing on the current interest in the health benefits of tea, India’s Tea Research Institute will be collaborating with Patanjali Ayurved Ltd. to encourage “medicinal plantation in Assam and buy back from farmers for their products.” I’m assuming this means tea, since the proposed research is based on compounds extracted from tea leaves and seeds.

Japan

Every tea-producing country is looking to keep current tea drinkers as well as to bring more into the fold. Today, rather than urging customers to take the time to brew quality loose tea, it seems that fast and easy is being stressed. Whatever I may feel about this emphasis, companies are apparently following the market.

For example, most respondents to a Coca-Cola Japan survey reported that making tea at home was “inconvenient.” Hence the company’s “1,2,Cube,” a freeze-dried cube of green or barley tea (or coffee) that dissolves in water. With brew times of green tea literally just seconds, this seems unnecessary but obviously the company has plenty of customers who’ve expressed a need for a product like this.

japan gyokuro

Sri Lanka

This island nation faces a different problem after their president recently banned all chemical fertilizers. Many tea plantations fear a gigantic loss. Master tea maker Herman Gunaratne was quoted in Aljazeera (9/1/21) as saying the industry is in “complete disarray” and that “the consequences for the country are unimaginable.”

ceylon

Sri Lanka is the fourth largest tea producer in the world, and tea is the country’s largest export. Although rationally we want our tea to be pesticide and heavy metal free, realistically it takes time, education, and money for an entire industry to shift gears. Yes, moving away from chemical fertilizers is good, but there are many ramifications that must be considered and dealt with.

Final Note

So many problems and issues at play right now, but also innovation and optimism. Let’s raise a cup to the latter!

gyokuro brewed

Sources: –Airfreight State of the Industry, September 2021, DHL; Aljazeera, “Organic food revolution in Sri Lanka threatens its tea industry,” 9/1/21; China Xinhua News, “Tea industry goes smart with 5G technology in NW China’s Longnan,” 9/17/21; DHL Ocean Freight Market Update, September 2021, 8/31/21; –Ghosal, S., “India’s imports of cheap teas surge 176% in six months,” The Economic Times, 9/19/21; –Ghosal, S., “Tea with a view of Kanchenjunga,” The Economic Times, 9/12/21; Grape Japan, “Coca-Cola Japan releases freeze-dried green tea and coffee cubes for instant brews,” Japan Today, 5/17/21; –Kiel, A., “#SecretsofSuzhou: Tea culture and biluochun tea,” World Tea News, 5/5/21; –Mangazi, C., “Foundation for new tech in tea industry,” The Times, Times Media Group, 9/27/21; –Manna, S., “Battle of the kettle,” The Economic Times, 9/19/21; –Matoke, T., ” Nandi, Bomet, and Kericho to raise land rates 100 times for tea firms,” Business Daily, 8/12/21; –Mulinya, B., “Job losses loom in Kenya’s tea industry . . ., ” VOA News, 3/18/21; –Singh, B., “Tea Research Institute to sign research MoU with Patanjali,” The Economic Times, 9/26/21.

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