This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
For some beverages, “single origin” is a big deal. In the world of wine, Bordeaux signals something very different from Napa Valley, and coffee lovers know that beans from Kenya and Honduras will each have a distinct flavor profile.
By and large, the tea industry is different. More than 159 million Americans sip at least a cup daily, yet most couldn’t tell you where their tea comes from. That’s because tea drinkers are conditioned to ask for a specific flavor – English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Orange Pekoe – and the big brands constantly adjust their blends to ensure a consistent taste.
That consistency comes at the expense of transparency, however.
“One tea bag will have more than 100 different tea farms around the world, mixed in that one bag,” says Nishchal Banskota, a second-generation tea entrepreneur from Nepal. “Who will know what these farmers are being paid?”
A Legacy of Caring
Nepal is heavily reliant on its agricultural sector, with 76% of its people involved in some type of farming. As of 2018, the country exported around $17 million worth of tea, but, true to the murky nature of commodity supply chains, Nepali teas are rarely given the kind of recognition they deserve.
Nishchal is trying to change that. He launched Nepal Tea in 2016 to take on the twin challenges of demystifying the tea industry and connecting consumers to the farmers who make their cuppa possible.
However, it didn’t take exposure to the international market to begin making a difference. Kanchanjangha Tea Estate (KTE), the 125 acre, certified organic tea farm his father set up in 1984, was a catalyst for social impact in its own right.
Inspired by the similar altitude, growing conditions, and success of tea estates in nearby Darjeeling, India, 100 farmers from the local community contributed lands unsuitable for growing other crops. Through a cooperative model, KTE provides subsidized food, clothing, and housing, and maintains a fund used to finance a complete education for workers’ children.
Nishchal originally came to the US in 2011 to study accounting, but he turned his attention back toward home when his college’s administration offered him an opportunity to build a classroom in an area of Nepal so remote and inaccessible that kids had to “commute two hours to school every day, walking.”
It was a passing conversation with one of the new school’s young students that inspired Nishchal to focus his work permanently on social development – but only in the aftermath of Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake did he take a second look at the farm’s ongoing impact and realized he had been “overlooking what is exactly at home, and trying to do something else.”
Keeping It Local
Conventionally speaking, the tea industry is notorious for its lopsided value chain, with 90% of all trade dominated by just seven multinational companies. Most tea is sold at auction with minimal processing done in the origin country – leaving blending, packaging, and distribution to importers, along with the profits.
By contrast, Nepal Tea handles all stages of production locally, from bush to bag. The crafting process begins on the slopes of the farm itself, where tea bushes are interspersed among the existing ecosystem, and additional crops are incorporated to manage pests naturally.
“On the sides, we have cardamom, we have lemongrass, we have vetiver, we have a lot of these trees that act as shades, and also act as high nutrition content in the roots,” Nishchal explains. “We tend to work with some form of biodynamic farming, where each species helps each other out.”
Across the tea industry, at no point after harvest are leaves ever washed, so such organic farming practices eliminate the need for synthetic pesticides which would otherwise end up directly in customers’ cups.
After plucking, all tea is weathered, rolled, and carefully fired at KTE’s nearby factory, then sealed in foil bags and air freighted to the US, preserving superior freshness for the end user.
Localized manufacturing bags a bigger paycheck for farmers – up to three times as much as their counterparts who lack the capacity to process and package at origin. KTE teas are still sold domestically, but the export business provides the greatest margins, with the Nepal Tea label responsible for more than doubling revenues in the last two years.
Kids, Cows, and Community
Unlike so many entrepreneurs, Nishchal is remarkably humble about his accomplishments – insisting for instance, that he’s merely managing and growing the impact of the family farm. He points out that much of the company’s impact is made possible by “inherited, grandfathered projects that KTE itself was doing.”
But growth matters: Thanks to rising sales, Nepal Tea’s nonprofit arm has succeeded in completely covering tuition costs for 2,400 children to date, and Nishchal has even bigger ambitions for the future. “My mission or vision for life is, I need to get one million farmers out of poverty, within their generation,” he says, pointing out that a diverse approach is needed to achieve such a far-reaching goal.
One strategy is to use materials found around the farm to create a diversified income stream for their farmers. Bamboo, for instance, grows in excess, so farmers were trained to weave the flat stalks into delicate, yet sturdy pouches that protect the tea from damage during shipping. Recently, due to increased demand, the project has also helped create jobs in the larger community, with local residents weaving some of the beautiful purses used in Nepal Tea’s consumer packaging.
It takes more than just crops to maximize income for farm families. Nepal Tea’s Cow Bank project enriches the domestic economy by distributing cows to farming families in the region, providing them a means to sell milk in the local marketplace.
At the project’s inception, 36 cows plus a bull were brought into the community; 16 years later, that number has multiplied to almost 200. As an additional source of income, farmers have the option to sell cow dung back to KTE to be used as fertilizer – and when calves are born, KTE redistributes them to farmers who haven’t received a cow yet.
All of these innovations have attracted notice within Nepal. Already, Nishchal tells us, the area surrounding his farm is “nationally recognized as one of the most organic states, and our village is considered to be a model village” – but he hopes to spread the word even further.
Through an Immersive Tea Tourism program, Nepal Tea has brought groups from all over the world to spend time at the farm and experience what it’s like to pluck and make tea. Nishchal believes that kind of personal contact promotes cultural appreciation, while forging rare kinships between producer and consumer, laborer and manager.
“Our farmers are finally putting faces to the products they’re making every single day,” he says. “It facilitates that bridge, that connection, that is needed for the producers and the consumers.”
Spend for good: From Silver Yeti to Shangri-La Oolong, you can order more than a dozen intriguing varieties of tea at the Nepal Tea website – all single origin, handpicked, and certified organic. Not sure where to start? Try the sampler collection with 10 different teas tucked into a mandala purse hand-sewn by a local villager with disabilities. Shipping is free on orders over $49.
Pledge for good: Every week we offer original reporting to help you create a better world with the money you’re spending anyway. Click here to join the movement by taking the Spend-Gooder Pledge. All it takes is 30 seconds (and 0 dollars).