Coronavirus Experience. Changing Work Environment in Germany, Georgia & India

We continue a series of posts in which Tea Masters from around the world share their experience of work in the pandemic.

Yuliya Shtaltovna. TMCl 2017 Tea Pairing participant, TMC Ukraine National Judge. Berlin, Germany

It’s April 24th tonight and that means it’s the end of the first week of the easened version of the 6-week-long COVID-lockdown here in Berlin, Germany. The kindergartens, final grade school pupils, business travellers are allowed to the empty hotels, cafes and restaurants are now allowed to be open under special distance and sanitizers regulations. Over this week I had an opportunity to interview a couple of tea shops so that you can be prepared and draw a model to survive when the lockdown ends wherever you are. Use the strategies to re-enter the market, to communicate that to your frequent customers and think how you are going to deal with no (or little of) new harvest.

The Frau of the TeeHaus is happy to see me, cheers me up, quickly puts her mask on and points out the marks of 1.5 meters radius protecting her from my approach. I congratulated her on the lockdown nightmare being over and that now they are re-opened, she gives me a highbrow: ‘Tea is the essential product here in Germany, we were open all the quarantine long to serve you, miss’. Indeed, all the grocery stores had extra levels of restrictions to stay open and they proudly stood open.

Of course, they had better and worse days, she explained, but some of the frequent customers came rarely to buy even more tea they would usually buy — for the parents and grandparents, for neighbours and a range for themselves. There were less customers per day, but when they came they used the opportunity to buy it all. Surely, most of the tea was the most popular here Herbal Mixes, some tea stores boast of more than 40 sorts of those (with most popular being Ginger, Lemon zest, Berries, Linden and Ginseng mixes). The stores are not allowed to give the tea to try the aroma (to protect it from getting infected), therefore most would prefer to go for their favourites and to buy the familiar ones for their closest as a gift, as a sign of appreciation. On the other hand, most people had to endure the home office, so tried more varieties than usual so as not to get bored with a limited choice, decorating it with lemon or with ginger to get their immune system more stable.

For sure, here are some tea-addicts such as myself, who come for another dope of Gyokuro or Fukusecha complaining that the rare harvest of the highest plantations by the most sustainable producers they follow on Facebook is running out, therefore the true apocalypse is getting closer. There is sad news for us all: the planned deliveries from Darjeeling and Japan are postponed till further notice.

Anyway you seem to stay afloat, I say. For sure, the government pays the Kurzarbeit difference, it stays with us, she explained. If a small business suffers more than 25% loss in income, the government pays 60% of the difference to the worker’s wages, sending them for short working hours instead of unemployment office. Thanks to this policy, less people get fired, most of them keep staying employed (only 3.6% of unemployment is calculated so far, compared with 17% in Spain and 23% in Greece). That means that more income will be produced in the upcoming months — the economy seems to work it out and we are getting more of the tea sold for our own consumption in the foreseeable future.

Yes, there is no place for tea-ceremonies so far, no place for the tea-meetups, less focus on expensive tea compared to cheaper Assam and Ceylon — it is hard to find here Red Chinese sorts, anyway. However, TeeHaus being a small family one-shop enterprise or TeeGschwendner being the biggest local network, both seem to breathe out with relief: it’s finally over, the regular customers are starting to come back and it’s time to greet them and thank them for surviving together. The Paper & Tea started their SMM campaign movingly mentioning their new extended working hours and special Ginger and Purple Tea mixes to try — ‘we cannot wait to welcome each of you personally’ after all those days that set us apart. They have just set their first offline Tea Tasting for the 4th of May (and till further notice).

Just as the spring without a smallest rain makes it almost painful to see the blooming flowers, bushes and the blossoming trees far from their normal lush abundance, the same with the Tea Shops that are about to be watered by their customers coming back, one by one, post by post, greeting by greeting, thanks by thanks. We have survived together, let this thirsty spring finally come.

Shota Bitadze. TMC Georgia National Coordinator. Tbilisi, Georgia

There was no tradition or culture of tea farming in Georgia. Traditional Georgian tea was an industrial product. Therefore, even workers of tea plantations and tea factories could know their job well, but they did not know the tea. At present we are mastering the culture of tea farming, starting with making tea for ourselves.

Now there is a pandemic, the dollar is expensive, imports are obstructed, prices for imported goods are rising, and there are logistical problems and difficulties with tea production in tea-producing countries. All these can lead to the shortage of imported tea and an increase in its price. And here arise the opportunities for local Georgian tea in the domestic market. We have good raw materials — the old plantations are “resting” and allow us to collect leaf for every taste. We have trained tea farmers, we have equipment, we do not copy Chinese teas, but we make our own, original ones. Now our tea has prospects, we hope it will become easier to compete with imported tea.

In addition, due to the pandemic Georgian pluckers cannot go to harvest tea in Turkey so they start working on their land. Many people have returned to the village, found their old houses there and started working on their land. We have started the tea season and we are quietly making tea, which we’ll be able to sell in Georgia, without intermediaries, directly from producers, on the spot, in different regions of the country. I am teaching farmers how to make white tea from abandoned plantations. When people have time, they go into the forest, pick tea leaves, dry them properly and make small amounts of tea. I buy this tea from them for a good price.

We also develop online sales and process export orders, and we will work with both expensive high quality tea and everyday black tea priced from 2 to 5 dollars per kilogram.

Actually the present situation is unique for the tea Georgia. Hypothetically, we can produce up to 100 tons of tea per year, but we have not reached such volumes so far. Perhaps, the coronavirus crisis will stimulate both domestic production and domestic consumption of tea in Georgia and such volumes will become a reality.

Sujit Patra. Secretary of Indian Tea Association. Kolkata, India

Being a worldwide problem, Covid-19 pandemic has affected Indian tea industry just as anything else. Indian Government advised for total lockdown of all establishments for a period of 21 days since 25 March 2020, including tea leaf plucking and manufacturing. This shutdown has affected tea production as we are in the midst of first flush. Considering that tea plantations are eco-friendly and are situated under the open sky and direct sun, we approached the Government for partial opening of gardens. This has been granted, and plucking / manufacturing has just started. Due to prevailing good weather in tea areas, we hope to make up the loss in 2nd flush which is the quality period. So be prepared to buy more Indian quality teas and pay little more.

Last year India produced record crop of 1389 thousand tons (51 thousand tons more than in 2018). In 2019 total export was lower by 8 thousand tons. There is thus a huge surplus in the pipeline. So we are not worried even if India produces little less in 2020. In fact to curtail production of inferior tea, Tea Board had to impose strict restriction to stop production at the end of the year in 2018 and 2019. Government is determined to establish Indian tea’s quality image. Tea Board has advised gardens to manufacture quality teas compliant with FSSAI norms. It has instituted random checking method in this regard.

Indian tea industry faces very high cost of production since it provides unprecedented social welfare benefits to workers and their entire families. These include free housing, medicine, children education, goodgrains at pre-1950s price, PF, etc. All these plus low worker productivity make Indian tea’s production cost rather high. Due to the Covid19 lockdown, Indian tea industry may loose tea production without cutting any cost.

To make everything operational ITA and Tea Board of India are working together and approaching the authorities. Ports are operating. Kolkata Port and Customs are working round the clock in the trying conditions to make the operational process functional as much as possible. E-filing of shipping bills, e-passes for trucks entry, etc. and their approval are instituted online and fully operational. The Kolkata Port has been operating with high capacity. All types of cargo and a large number of containers are being handled at both Kolkata and Haldia Ports and ships have been calling everyday.

The most serious challenges for the Indian tea market I would divide it into two segments — Domestic and Export.

Present Domestic market size is over 1 million tons and growing by 22-25 thousand tons yearly. We are worried as our per capita consumption (830 g) is lower than in many other countries and not growing. Considering our tea production growth, in both established gardens and small growers, we need to boost our domestic consumption to accommodate yearly surplus tea. We are serious about it. Tea has lot of health benefits — it can boost immune system (any type of black or green tea). We have already initiated promotion in this regard. Export Market: After hovering around 210-220 thousand tons over last few decades, Indian tea exports are now on a higher trajectory. Exports in 2017, 2018 and 2019 were 252, 256 and 248 thousand tons respectively. Indian tea has now secured first place in Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, USA, Canada, China, etc. This is due to improvement in quality, servicing, availability of exportable tea, etc. We have studied our production capacities and overseas demands. India produces all kinds of tea — black (orthodox, CTC), green, white, oolong, purple, etc. — it is a one-stop shop. Considering world demand trends, India has increased capabilities for manufacturing Orthodox tea to a great extent. Just in 2019, our Orthodox production has increased by 29 thousand tons (26%) in one year. This can be further increased on overseas demand. Similarly green tea production is also growing. There are queries from green tea markets like Morocco, Afghanistan, etc and India will cater to their demands. We are sure we will cross 300 thousand tons of exports in the near future.