The devastating second wave of Covid-19 which reached India, Nepal and Sri Lanka this Spring has meant a tough time for tea growers across the region. Unlike last year’s first wave which was contained mostly to the cities, this time round the virus has spread to rural areas as well. Here’s an update on how the small-scale tea gardens we work with have been impacted.
In India authorities put in place a lockdown in mid-April when cases started to surge. Tea gardens have fortunately been allowed to remain operational throughout this time with extra precautions in place including keeping social distance, wearing masks, regular hand sanitisation etc.
Outbreaks in the larger industrial tea plantations in Assam and Darjeeling which are home to many hundreds of workers did lead to the closure of some of these “conventional” estates. Small-scale gardens like Kanoka Tea Estate in Assam (as shown in the photo below) or Lakyrsiew Tea Estate in Meghalaya have perhaps not faced the same health risks related to cramped living conditions that exist on some estates.
Other challenges remain, however. Lakyrsiew has been operating with a skeletal staff as the lockdown limited the movement of field workers travelling to work. At Kanoka, getting tea out of gardens has been problematic as a 24-hour curfew over the past month severely disrupted all transportation and shipping.
It’s been a different story in the high elevations of the Nilgiri Hills in south-west India where the Tea Studio is located. The impact here has been much less severe than the first lockdown in 2020 which saw a blanket lockdown come into place bringing production to a complete standstill for several weeks. The situation this time round has been more stable from an operational point of view, and Tea Studio is operating as normal.
For tea growers across the country, a major concern is the decline in demand, both in the international and domestic market. Conditions brought about by the pandemic have caused the closure of restaurants and cafés worldwide. Whilst the tea industry across the board has suffered, small-scale growers of artisanal teas are particularly vulnerable to varying degrees as they export most production.
Although vaccination drives are on in rural areas of India, infection rates across the country remain high and a patchwork of restrictions are likely to remain in place for some time. Just 5% of the population has been fully vaccinated. In the countryside especially the main problem is widespread vaccine hesitancy which is proving hard to break through.
Inevitably Nepal with its shared open border with India has suffered the ripple effects of the vicious second wave which has further weakened an already impoverished health system. In April, authorities imposed a two-month lockdown.
Tea gardens have been allowed to keep operating but in a much reduced capacity. At the Kanchanjangha Tea Estate in Ilam district in the far eastern Himalayas, only a limited number of people have been able to work at the factory at any time. Tea pluckers in the gardens are operating in accordance with guidelines with social distancing measures in place.
Given the absence of any type of health insurance in Nepal, the Nepali Tea Foundation has created a Farmer’s Emergency Fund to cover daily wage earners most impacted by the pandemic. Funds are being used to help cover medical expenses, to buy daily food essentials, as well as compensate for lost income.
For now, the vaccination schedule has been very slow across the country. Less than 3% of the population has so far been fully vaccinated. Nepal, as with other South Asian countries, has been struggling to obtain doses since India halted exports. Growers hope the vaccination drive will improve given a new pro-vaccine prime minister, Sher Bahudur Deuba, was appointed this month.
To make matters worse, tea growers in Nepal have struggled with extreme weather events this year. A long dry spell started in December 2020 and lasted until February. Since May, growers have had to deal with severe rainfall and hailstorms. According to the state-run National Tea and Coffee Development Board, Nepal has seen a 30-40% decline in its tea harvest compared to a year ago.
In the eastern mountains of Sri Lanka, the Amba Estate closed for one month in Spring and then again for two weeks in June due to national lockdowns. As an agricultural business, the estate was allowed to restart operations relatively quickly with precautions in place like social distancing (as seen in the photo below which shows the ladies tea-rolling outside).
Similarly, staff shortages have been a challenge. Since a first case in a neighbouring village was reported in early June, the estate has only been allowed to have 50% of the team working every day. This has reduced output and since most of the field workers are paid per day, this has badly affected their incomes. The estate has partially compensated for this by adding extra days and maintaining various bonuses, but it is still tough for the daily-wage workers.
On the bright side, Amba has seen international demand increase. A drop in demand from the hospitality sector has been offset by a rise in people seeking out higher quality products to use at home. Revenues are still way down as Amba also relies on tourists visiting the farms and sales to other local hotels and restaurants have dried up. Export revenues were badly hit by shipping problems as the estate could not ship any products last April-May and again this June so revenues for this period were lost.
Fortunately, the estate has not had a single positive case among its 50+ workforce in the last 15 months. Another glimmer of hope is that the national vaccination campaign has finally reached the Amba valley. All villagers over 60 have now had their first jab, and all villagers over 30 are on track get the same within the next month.
There's still a lot of question marks about what long term effect the pandemic will have on specialty tea. For sure, in these uncertain times, it is never been more essential to keep supporting our tea garden partners and ensure that fine specialty tea is available for the next generation of tea lovers.
Thank you for helping us on our mission to support specialty artisanal teas and make sure that it remains an uplifting experience for everyone in the supply chain, for both the growers and the drinkers.