India's tea farmers see hope in co-ops

Tea farmer Bandana Rai

Rajah Banerjee is a owner of Makaibari Tea Estates.

TEXT OF STORY

BILL RADKE: The tea trade in India hasn't changed much in 150 years, since British colonials started cultivating it there. But changes are brewing.

Raymond Thibodeaux has more from Darjeeling
in the Indian state of West Bengal.


RAYMOND THIBODEAUX: Workers pluck fresh shoots off tea bushes in the morning mist of Darjeeling. This is the capital of India's tea industry. But the small-scale farmers, and laborers rank among India's poorest. So now, they're trying to earn a better living by producing their own organic tea. Some 300 of them have formed a cooperative called Organic Ekta.

It's organic fair-trade tea brings higher prices from buyers, says co-op member Bandana Rai.

BANDANA RAI SPEAKS IN NEPALI

Bandana says she has more than tripled her income. She used the extra money to build a new kitchen and enroll her two sons in better schools. Organic Ekta was launched about three years ago with the help of Portland-based NGO Mercy Corps and Tazo, the tea arm of Starbucks.

RAJAH BANERJEE: It has given new hope, for now and for the future.

Rajah Banerjee is a fourth generation tea estate owner. He's one of Organic Ekta's main buyers. He says Darjeeling's $1.5 billion-a-year tea industry has been in decline for years and that Organic Ekta and other similar tea cooperatives are a good thing. He's already started offering shares of his Makaibari Tea Estates to his employees, essentially making them partners.

BANERJEE: To get people to be self-respecting, grass-roots entrepreneurs is the only way out. If it's your own cow, you know how best to milk it.

Still, some analysts question whether the cooperatives such as Organic Ekta can survive without backers such as Tazo and Mercy Corps. Bigger tea estate owners say organic teas have much smaller yields and are expensive to produce.

But Rubin Prabhan, a Mercy Corps director in Darjeeling, disagrees.

RUBIN PRABHAN: The Indian tea industry needed reform. We all believe that Organic Ekta is the change that the Darjeeling tea industry needed. And this could be the future of Darjeeling tea.

Prabhan says one day tea associations could own their own factories to process and package their teas and make even better profits from the tea headed for the shelves of a supermarket near you.

I'm Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

Rajah Banerjee is a owner of Makaibari Tea Estates.

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