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Sometimes, you come across something that leaves you with an irresistible need to share, to let others know what you just experienced. That happened to me a few weeks ago.
In my work, I interact with many tea gardens and factories, and indeed it is always my happy place. These places are generally very people-heavy, with most gardens still hand-plucking. In the speciality sector in particular, processing is also very manual and traditional in many places.
Last month, we were hosted by a factory that so inspired me that I want to share their untold story of goodness.

Siddha Devi tea estate, situated 7600 feet above sea level in Ilam, Nepal was the location I chose for speciality tea processing training for my group of tea SMEs. The work was funded by the European Union and facilitated by the International Trade Centre, ITC as part of their Myanmar Arise Plus project.
Why did I choose Siddha Devi?
Well, I knew they have a great, well respected tea maker and planter – Andrew Gardner. I also knew they are passionate about quality, not volume – a mantra I preach to all speciality tea producers. I had heard good things about their work in sustainability too.
But what I saw for myself blew me away. I saw firsthand their real actions, positively changing lives in the community they work in. In particular, I was awed by what they are doing to help and support single mothers and women from the local villages.

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These young women (many in the 18-22 years age bracket) have some heartbreaking stories to tell about their lives before, and I must admit to shedding a tear or two hearing some of them. Siddha Devi (and Andrew) have saved not just their lives, but their family livelihoods, and their children’s too.
They don’t only provide much needed employment, housing and amenities (electricity, gas, water etc). No, there is much more. The women are taken in, given a decent place to live in, and their children put into a school locally – all paid for by the company. Each of them has become the key breadwinner for their families.

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SAPANA’S STORYI want to be a boy

Forced into marriage to an elderly man at the age of 16, Sapana became a mother at 17. Sapna did not want this, but she had no say in the matter. Her husband soon left her and remarried, leaving her and her child desperate and penniless with no source of income.
She came to Siddha Devi at the age of 18 with her small child, looking for work. She was taken in and now works in speciality tea making. Her smile is infectious, her work impeccable. But above all she feels safe and secure, and her son is looked after, and going to school – something she could never have dreamed of having.
“If being a girl means they can just do this to you, then I want to be a boy”, Sapana declared. She cut her hair, and changed to wearing trousers. She loves to wear her baseball cap.

DHAN MAYA’S VOW – I never want to get married

She grew up in a home where domestic violence was the order of the day. The trend continued as she witnessed her elder sister being abused by her drunken husband. When they heard that Siddha Devi were hiring, she and her sister approached them. Now they both work at the factory, share accommodation on site, and the company is educating her sister’s two children.
Dhan Maya works like it is her own enterprise – so hardworking that she has been promoted from daily wage worker to Supervisor. She organises the rest of the team every day, and together they make outstanding speciality teas – silver, green, gold, oolong and black. She looks after all the processes to ensure each tea type is made correctly. She records timings, temperatures and runs the machines. She knows when the tea is correctly withered or oxidised, and can tell what type of tea they incoming leaf is good for. She is a tea maker! This is impressive as majority of teamakers in the world are men.
Dhan Maya is only 19 years old, and says she never wants to get married.

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                                   TIKA’S TALE – I love to dance
Tika is very lively and loves making Tik Tok videos (somehow, she managed to talk me into doing a video with her, I don’t know how!).
But her life was not always fun. Tika lived in the village nearby, and lost her father when she was very young. Being the eldest, and looking at the hard times her mother was facing brining up her many siblings, she gave up her studies to help with the home. She too joined the company on daily wages, but always wanted to work in security. Since joining Siddha Devi, she has been able to support her family and privately continue with her studies. Now she controls who enters and leaves the site, operates the generator that has to be turned on every time power goes out (several times a day) and ensures all security issues are taken care of.

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                                        GANGA AND JAMUNA – The twins
Jamuna looks after accounts ledger while Ganga takes care of administration, worker attendance records and work allocation.
Sweet, warm and infinitely respectful, the twins share their accommodation, and everyday walk together to the factory to begin their duties at 7.30 in the morning.
Their parents could not support further education. The twins were faced with joblessness, the looming possibility of early marriage, and a life of poverty in the village. Having heard of Andrew and his work supporting women and young girls, they reached out across several districts, and got in touch with him at Siddha Devi. Here, they have found not just gainful employment that pays for their training (Jamuna is training in accounts while Ganga wants to be a teacher) but also the support in time off and mentoring to further their education and careers.

I could go on, and tell you dozens more stories, but you get the gist.
This is not one story but many. There are 24 young women living on site, and another 20 in similar circumstances who come in daily. Work is underway to complete a second accommodation block for them. The stories are all similar, but they have all had a happy ending at Siddha Devi – a job, a home and a sanctuary. The whole place operates with a 99% women work force. At peak season over 200 women work in the fields and factory, turning up with a smile and ready to take on the day knowing they are safe and happy. Seeing them together, I sensed their sisterhood, born out of shared experiences, and enhanced by shared purpose and resolve to survive.

Real Action, not just words
What is really special about these stories is that in a world where we see and hear much chest -thumping from corporates when they so much as donate an insignificant amount to a “good cause”, this is a story that is untold. The good work just happens in the background. All is being done because the young founder, having studied sustainability, and felt a real need to turn learning into action took it upon herself to make that happen locally, sustainably, without seeking any donations, or shouting about it.
A meeting of like minds – she found Andrew, who was already doing similar initiatives elsewhere. Andrew is given the freedom to support any young woman in need who turns up – no one is turned away.

He is more than just their boss –
he is a father figure, a mentor and a protector.

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To him, this is the ultimate purpose; “…in work Joyce, there is success and satisfaction; I choose the later,” he says with much wisdom and humility.

Looking deep into the girls’ eyes, and at their beaming faces, I knew I just had to share their story.

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#tea #specialitytea #sustainability #womenintea #doinggoodintea @gardnerstea @chiya


Joyce Maina, International Consultant, ITC