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Published on: Aug. 9, 2021, 12:18 p.m.
Jalinga narrates an organic tale
  • Ketan: commanding a premium for his tea; Photos: Sajal Bose

By Sajal Bose. Deputy Editor, Business India

The Indian tea industry has grown and changed in manifold ways over the years. It is now faced with many challenges due to climate change, declining soil fertility, the old age of plantations and stagnation of yield level. However, there are also a few gardens that have developed the knowledge to defeat all odds. They devotedly plough back a share of their profits to nurture the bushes, and educate their workforces to adopt best practices to produce a consistent quality of tea. This has helped these gardens fetch premium prices for their teas.

 Ketan Patel’s Jalinga is one such breed of tea estate, benchmarked as an exporter of consistent premium quality organic, orthodox, CTC, green tea, white tea and oolong tea. The garden has been steadily selling its organic tea at a high price in the export market and has even relegated some large players to the background.

“Jalinga tea estate is the only CO2-neutral certified tea estate in the world and the single largest sustainable organic tea estate in India,” claims Ketan Patel, director, Jalinga Tea Co. The CO2 neutral certificate, awarded by Soil & More of the Netherlands, was for Jalinga’s focus on adapting to changing climate conditions and actively contributing towards protecting the climate. The company has also been given certificates by Lacon, Germany; Fairtrade US; Rainforest Alliance; JAS; and FSSC, for its achievements as an organic tea producer. “These certifications are a great platform; they raise the bar and help us achieve 25 per cent premium on our teas,” adds Patel. 

Abhishekh Bagaria, director, Bagaria group, which owns Bhubrighat Tea Estate in Cachar and also produces organic tea, is all praise about Jalinga Tea. “It is a trendsetter in Cachar. The company was the first tea garden in Cachar to go organic. It is a quality tea exporter and has a good marketing strategy.” India produces about 10 million kg of organic tea, of which Darjeeling’s share is 80-85 per cent, with the rest from Assam.

 Jalinga Tea Estate is nestled in the mountains, cocooned in the valley of South Assam. Remote parts of the estate are inaccessible to four-wheelers. The environment, being so well protected naturally, boasts of large species of flora that attracts birds and butterflies rarely seen elsewhere. This organic estate, spread across 1,100 hectares, has a factory, nursery, dispensary and labour lines, to accommodate 1,500 workers and their families. Jalinga produces 800,000 kg of quality organic tea per annum.

Adding quality to tea

The organic way – nurturing tea bushes without using chemical and pesticides – makes all the difference to Jalinga. The workers in the garden and factory are trained to religiously follow the sustainable method to produce organic tea. “We have also undertaken regular replanting and rejuvenation of the tea bushes to fill the vacancies,” says Pran Pratim Dutta, senior manager, Jalinga. The factory meticulously adheres to rules, adding to the quality of the tea. Nobody is allowed to enter the factory without mask and shoe cover. However, the processing unit needs to improve further.

“Jalinga has created a valuable name in the supply of organic tea globally,” says Arun Narain Singh, founder trustee, Tea Vision Trust & former managing director, Goodricke. “Its products come from Cachar, which is known as the most difficult area for growing tea in Assam. The management needs to be complimented for integrating organic practices with home-grown inputs for a sustainable growth.” But Singh has a word of caution too for the company – the garden needs to carry out regular planting and replacement programmes and also involve workers in adopting organic habits, if it wants to sustain the quality of its produce.

The Jalinga saga began in 1935, when its founder, the late Manibhai G Patel, migrated to Calcutta from Gujarat and entered the tea business. The family holdings later split several times, with the Jalinga group coming under the management of Kirit Patel and his son Ketan. “Managing a quality tea plantation is a tricky affair, hindered as it is by the rising cost of production, as also the fierce competition,” says Kirit Patel. “It is important for the plantation to plough a part of the profit back into the tea business, if it wants to be a consistent quality player.” Patel is a repository of expertise, while his 48-year-old son Ketan is an energy house and globe-trotter, looking for new opportunities. He is the driving force of the Rs110 crore, closely-held group.

Ketan has realised that, to sustain the business, it is important to offer value addition. With his father’s approval, he turned Jalinga into an organic tea estate from the CTC producer it was earlier. “Making Cachar tea organic was a tough task, as it is hardly exported. Many in the industry thought I was a fool, but I was determined to make it happen,” recalls Ketan, a MBA from Northeaster University, Boston, sitting at his office in a heritage building in central Kolkata.

He stopped using chemical fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides in the tea plantation, because of their perceived harmful effects. Instead, he started using natural fertilisers and pest deterrents, as prescribed, to produce organic tea. It took three years of relentless hard work and close monitoring to convert Jalinga into a fully organic garden in 2004. The first organic certification of the company came from Lacon after the plantation had gone through a rigorous auditing process. “My first export order for organic tea came from Starbucks, USA in 2006 and was valued at Rs40 lakh; there was no looking back thereafter,” remembers Ketan.

The company also participated in several tea promotional activities and conferences worldwide, as part of the Tea Board’s schemes. This helped spread Jalinga’s name in the overseas market. The company has today created a niche market overseas for its tea produced under its strict parameters. Nerada Tea and Madura Tea in Australia; Qtrade, PGI, Unilever, Starbucks and Finlay’s in the US; Van Rees and Metro Tea in Canada; Teekanne, JFS and Lifebrands in Germany; as also Clipper Tea, Keith Spicer and Typhoo, are some of the coveted customers of the company worldwide.

To enhance soil microbial activity, the company produces compost using on-farm available green matter, pruning litter, weeds, etc, mixed with cow dung. Jalinga has set up an in-house laboratory to test compost and soil regularly, including in-house research on climate change in tea and developing better organic practices.

Initiatives to cut cost

“It is our endeavour to aim for zero carbon emissions,” explains Dutta. “We use 50 per cent biomass pellets and briquette as fuel for tea dryers, instead of coal. Soon, we intend to achieve 100 per cent biomass fuel replacement of coal, which will lead to a saving of Rs9-10 per kg. All these initiatives have helped us to reduce our average cost of production to Rs160 per kg, as against the CTC cost of production of Rs180 per kg in Cachar.

Today, Jalinga directly exports two million kg of quality organic tea. While it produces 800,000 kg in its own gardens, the rest is outsourced from selected organic gardens in Assam and Darjeeling. Jalinga controls the quality of its outsourced gardens and is looking for more to add to its list. It also reaches out to small tea growers in the neighbouring villages and tribal lands to teach them organic methods of tea cultivation. The company buys its entire production, paying the right price.

After having established its position in the export market, Jalinga has introduced a brand called T-Tales, especially for the domestic market. This affordably priced variety comes fresh from the garden to the cup.

It requires deep pockets to market a tea brand. But the company has adopted a strategy of supplying five-star hotels freshly produced and packed tea – for their customers in rooms, restaurants and banquet halls – instead of going through distribution channels, as most other brands do. The company aims to build relations with hotels and offer its product to them directly and in volume. “We have received overwhelming response, such as a contract from 80 Marriott hotels for the T-Tales brand,” says Ketan. T-Tales offers an exotic range of teas available in tea bags, packaged tea and loose tea in bulk. Its varieties include English Breakfast, Matcha Green and Earl Grey Tea.

The company is also ready to launch a T-Tales bio-cafe at the Hyatt Raipur in September. These bio-cafes will serve everything organic – tea, coffee and food. The brand plans to have 10 bio-cafes in five-star hotels pan India.

Jalinga tea estate is shrouded in nature and wilderness. The garden is now exploring offering a little nostalgia to tourists. It is planning to offer adventure eco-tourism. “Here, the visitor can experience everything from plucking to tasting of tea. We will take them through the life of the colonial era, with options to stay at boutique tea bungalows, tents in the middle of the tea garden or homestay with the workers,” Ketan says.

Jalinga is well-placed in the export market, because it has built up a good reputation. One word of caution though; it cannot always depend on a single garden or outsource, if it wants to expand. The Patels are eyeing the acquisition of more quality gardens. “A Darjeeling garden is our first choice, as at the moment that is missing in our portfolio,” says Ketan.

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