चिया खानु भो ?
Just about everything in Nepal happens over a cup of चिया. Generations have grown up with this staple brew that is embedded in the national culture.
The history of tea cultivation in Nepal is more than a century-and-a-half old, ever since Gajaraj Singh Thapa planted the first sapling in Ilam in the 1800s. And while across the border, Darjeeling became synonymous with tea, Nepali leaves did not attain such fame.
Now, tea connoisseurs across the world are discovering the distinctive aroma and taste of Nepal’s teas. The Nepali company Jun Chiyabari has branded its High Mountain Tea from the misty mountains of Dhankuta, and its subtle and sophisticated aroma has even found a niche market in countries where tea originated: China, Japan and Korea.
Then there are the more traditional strong dark CTC blends with milk and sugar added to be slurped in the morning, or in tea shops with friends. But it is loose-leaf orthodox tea which is catching on even among Nepalis.
Almost all of Nepal’s teas are produced in five eastern districts – Jhapa, Ilam, Pachthar, Dhankuta, and Terhathum – where elevation, soil condition and weather are best suited for the bushes to thrive.
Most of the leaves are sold wholesale in the Indian market and packaged as Darjeeling tea. As much as 96.4% of Nepal’s tea export ends up in India. But this means Ilam tea has a hard time establishing its unique brand characteristics.
To make matters worse, Nepali farmers do not get their due and are ripped off by middlemen controlling the supply chain. Nepal’s tea exports are valued at drastically low prices in the Indian market, which means most Nepali tea pickers and workers earn less than $2 a day.
According to the Nepal Trade Information Portal, tea export valued at Rs834 per kg in the US market only has a price tag of Rs266 in India. Due to the lack of market access, Nepali farmers get only a fraction of that. Nepal exported more than Rs2 billion worth of tea to India in 2021, but less than Rs9 million to the United States the same year.
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But here is the good news: Nepal's teas have been steadily carving out a brand name on the world stage. Companies like Nepal Tea Collective led by second and third-generation tea makers from eastern Nepal have been blazing a trail for loose-leaf, orthodox teas in the US market. It has also been working to disrupt the stranglehold of middlemen who have been so detrimental to farmers, as well as the international prospect for Nepal’s teas.
Sourcing teas directly from family-owned, small-holder farms, Nepal Tea Collective connects tea drinkers in the US and across the world directly to farmers in eastern Nepal. Featured in The New York Times and Forbes as a blueprint for reinventing the tea industry, Nepal Tea Collectives also offers the experience of award-winning teas from its catalog of organic, specialty teas.
The Collective is also promoting tea tourism, taking visitors on ten-day trips through eastern Nepal’s scenic tea country, the sweet spot for tea gardens. Visitors can savour the scenery, the tea making process and the one-of-a-kind flavours of white, green, oolong or black teas along the foothills of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. The microclimate of eastern Nepal, where cool breezes from the snowcapped mountains mingle with the warm and moisture-laden winds from the Bay of Bengal, is ideal for tea. Visitors can also meet tea pickers, skilled factory workers and their ingenious and unique methods of producing exceptional flavours.
Nepal Tea Collective is also hosting corporate tea-tasting programs to build awareness. “Guests can sip on tea together, learn about its rich history, and then engage in team-building activities,” explains founder Nishchal Banskota.
The journey for Nepal’s tea has not been easy. There are challenges brought about by the climate crisis as well as existing problems with outdated machinery, lack of proper storage and the higher cost of organic teas.
“Nepali producers could process teas from Nepal and access international markets with better facilities. We could create an identity for Nepali producers in the global market,” says co-founder of the Collective, Pratik Rijal.
An added challenge for farmers is also bridging the gap between the popular CTC tea culture, loaded with milk and sugar, and the still evolving taste among Nepalis for loose-leaf, organic teas.
Nepal Tea Collective is now connecting Nepali tea drinkers with a range of Nepali orthodox teas. Co-founder Amigo Khadka says, “If the French have their wines, the Scots have whiskeys, the Swiss have their chocolates, can Nepalis not have their teas?”
From Nepal with love
Decades before their conception in 2016 in New York, Nepal Tea Collective’s journey began halfway across the world, in Ilam’s Phidim.
Founded by second and third-generation tea-makers, Nishchal Banskota and Pratik Rijal, Nepal Tea Collective has since taken loose-leaf, orthodox Nepali teas to the global market.
Starting off as a kick-starter campaign with almost 500 backers, their work has always been anchored in disrupting the market chain of middlemen that rob tea farmers of their earnings. Following a direct-to-consumer model, Nepal Tea Collective sources their award-winning, organic, loose-leaf teas from small-holder, family-owned partner farms, like the Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Center.
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Established in the 1984s, the Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Center was envisioned by Banskota’s father, Deepak Prakash Banskota. At just 15, Deepak Prakash Banskota was struck by the thriving tea gardens and the livelihoods of the tea farmers in Darjeeling. Hoping to lift his own village in eastern Nepal out of poverty, Banskota planted Phidim’s first tea garden upon his return. What had been a backyard tea garden grew into the Kanchanjangha Tea Estate, the first certified organic tea garden in Nepal.
Over the years, some of the most flavorful and aromatic teas in the world were grown and produced on these farms. And yet, Nepali teas were lagging behind with the Darjeeling variant making up most of the market. In fact, most of the leaves grown in Nepal are sold wholesale in the Indian market and packaged as Darjeeling tea.
“It was almost as if Nepali loose-leaf teas had no identity of their own,” says Nishchal Banskota. “I realised it was our job, as the next generation, to step up and inform the world about Nepali teas, about our incredible tea-makers.”
Uplifting small-holder, community tea farms out of poverty is at the heart of Nepal Tea Collective’s work. By sustainably leveraging tea-making as a catalyst for economic and social transformation, Nepal Tea Collective is striving to uplift one million tea farmers out of poverty by 2050.
Since 2016, they have been working with seven community farms that operate in a cooperative, sustainable model, facilitating social change for 712 farmers. The average wage of their partner farmers has increased from $67 to $90 since 2016, an increment of 33%.
Not only have tea farmers and tea-makers benefited from the elimination of middlemen, consumers have also appreciated the freshness of their orthodox teas. It typically takes over 3-6 months for loose-leaf teas to reach tea-lovers through the supply chain of middlemen. Nepal Tea Collective has drastically shortened this chain: packing their teas at origin and immediately sending the tea to the customer, so that they are the first ones to open their teas. In the spirit of transparency, customers can also scan a QR code on the packaging of every bag of loose-leaf tea, tracking the entire journey their tea leaves have taken.
Furthermore, the collective also brings in tea tourists for immersive experiences of organic tea farming and tea-making in eastern Nepal. This allows for a new appreciation for Nepal’s unique micro-climates and rich terrain for tea farming while also connecting visitors with the young, Nepali tea-makers revolutionising the industry.