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Reflecting on the Tea Industry in 2020 amidst COVID19

Cover photo courtesy of @chesumotteaestate

photo courtesy of @specialityteakilimanjaro

What a year it has been for all of us! And it’s only August.

No aspect of life has been left unscathed and tea, definitely a key aspect of life, is no exception.

On the one hand the lock-down and stay-at home life imposed by COVID-19 has led to more cups of tea being drunk at home. As people visited the tea cupboard more and more times in a day, they discovered teas they had bought and long forgotten about; they discovered that they loved the taste of tea and they started to look for more and new teas to buy and brew. They also found that brewing in the tea pot is not too much of a fuss after all. I for one have had a great big clear- out of my tea cupboard as I’m a bit of a tea hoarder. In my work I come across so many beautiful teas and I always want to try them (most of them anyway), the result being a cupboard (and a few drawers) stashed full of amazing teas that I sometimes only get to when they are no longer as fresh as when I first fell in love with them! I’ve just had to throw out last year’s Darjeeling second flush tea as this year’s tea has already arrived and it is divine. That one-year old Mao Feng had to go too to make space for a fresh arrival of pot-steamed green tea from Kilimanjaro. The one – year old Pu-erh can remain I guess; vintage. I still have at least 40 teas left!

Even with consuming at least 5 cups a day I have failed to get through my vast collection, so I totally understand if you have untouched teas in your cupboard.

The out-of-home scenario for tea, like for all other food and drink has of course been unbelievably tough for all those who supply or sell tea. Some have alleviated the situation by going online, while for others that just wasn’t possible. Subsequently an untold number of tea shops have closed for good.

FEAR by Inxsanity

Art by black artist Inxsanixty. Face of ablack person painted with bright colours of white, orange , blue and purple with fear in her eyes.

Multiple Challenges

photo credit – FEAR by @inxsanixty

The increased retail tea sales have buoyed a commodity that has had it’s share of challenges recently. But is it enough?

Retail price for Value and Mainstream black tea remains challenged particularly in developed markets. When you can buy 80 teabags for less than £1 what does the farmer and his workers get? Even at an average mainstream tea price of £2.50 it is an interesting exercise to work out returns back to that farmer on his little tea plot. Premium and Speciality teas of course continue to fetch more favourable prices – and rightly so – but there is a much lower volume of that in the market, not enough to offset the total market.

The raised awareness of the goodness in tea has been great to see too. With wellness and well being top of mind for everyone this year it is no surprise that more green tea and herbal teas have been drunk too. From immunity to stress management, sleep and energy benefits people are discovering teas to support a healthier lifestyle.

For tea producers, most of who are in developing countries, the challenges have been multiple. Assam saw flooding as well as the imposition of social distancing rules leading to loss of crop and even though prices there are higher than last year’s again one wonders if that is enough to make up for the losses. Sri Lanka is still reeling from the impact of drought conditions earlier in the year.  In China, much of the all- important spring crop was lost as the impact of COVID-19 caused labour and supply chain issues. In Kenya the issues have been different – a huge jump in tea production due mostly to favourable weather has meant that prices there have remained very low, in some cases falling below cost of production. The same is the case for other producers elsewhere.

We cannot talk about 2020 and not mention the Black Lives Matter movement. The world has been forced to look itself in the mirror and reflect on how it has dealt with inequality and racism. Some have paused, listened, learnt, and decided to actively make changes. Others have not, because it doesn’t affect them. Tea has an inescapable historical link with colonialism and exploitation of indigenous people in various parts of the world – there is no getting away from that. But we cannot change the past – what we can do is take the learnings from it and make the present and future better.  In tea that, in my opinion, translates to choosing to ensure the farmers get a fair return that they can support a livelihood on, good working conditions and a living wage for workers and looking after the lands and communities that continue to provide us all with this much loved beverage. Thankfully many NGOs are working to try and make this happen. Making it happen in a way that doesn’t cost the same farmer hassle and money he can’t afford is important. Bringing them along on the journey, understanding the unique issues they face in their countries is important. Ensuring the real benefit goes to them is important.

But what about the large volumes of tea that keep coming out of producing countries, inevitably driving prices down? Well, the laws of demand and supply will always apply, and some difficult decisions will need to be made at some point. Most tea farms are privately owned and so it is these stake holders who will need to take a hard look at market dynamics and make decisions on what, and how much to produce. It is not an easy thing to contemplate for small holders whose livelihoods depend on that small tea farm, they have limited options.

Oh, and don’t forget that this year the largest tea company in the world announced that they will be selling off most of their tea business – big news in the industry!

Let us hope the increased tea drinking will continue post COVID-19, that those who have rediscovered or just discovered the love of tea will continue that journey and that those who haven’t yet will discover tea.


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