Amazed and Inspired by China

When I was given a speaker’s invite to attend the 2017 International Tea Forum in Enshi, China, I admit that my first question was, Enshi? Where is Enshi? So first, to situate my visit. Enshi is a moderately sized provincial city in Hubei province roughly 700 miles North West of Guangzhou with a population of around 780,000. It was clearly chosen as the venue for this Forum because of its proximity to some of China’s prime tea growing real estate. Having sorted out my logistics, I realised this would be an outstanding opportunity to share something of ETP’s mission and programme with a largely Chinese audience. I also wanted to connect with the ETP team in China, to see them at work on the ground with farmers and in the process, put a first-hand perspective on contemporary tea growing in China alongside my experiences earlier this year in Assam and Kenya.

This was my first time in China for some years so I was intrigued by Enshi, which has clearly grown in prosperity in recent times. Clean and well ordered, much of the infrastructure (airport, roads, hotels, apartment blocks, and so on) looks new, supporting rising local living standards. The city is something of a tourist centre for Chinese people and the My hosts told me that they were able to spot accents in the crowd from Shanghai and Beijing so this was clearly much more than a day out for the locals. The theme of tourism was to recur the following day when we visited the tea growing areas.

My visit to the tea growing area in Hubei was hosted by Enshi Wujiatai SE-Enriched Tribute Tea Company, Ltd. and their enthusiastic young Chairman, Junhau Liao. Arriving there, I entered a tea growing landscape unlike any I had seen before. Characterised by miles of hills of roughly similar elevation, the countryside resembles a series of upturned egg boxes, unbelievably eye-catching and a serious cardio-vascular work out for the intrepid visitor. The slopes are much steeper and the tea bushes grown much closer together than other tea origins. Despite this, the use of mechanical harvesters to bring in the crop is commonplace, testament to the rising costs of employment and the growing trend of mechanisation. There was plenty of evidence of recent investment to support the living standards of the local population.

Tea occupies a special place in the culture and history of China, so it is natural that tea growing areas would become a target destination for new generations of tourists. The countryside is clearly the star of the show, but an infrastructure of specially constructed vantage points, exhibitions, demonstrations, and travel facilities is clearly emerging. As this catches on, it will deepen the connection between consumers and the tea industry whilst also providing an alternative source of income for tea growing areas; a model perhaps, for other tea growing areas to follow?

And so the primary objective of this trip, the conference itself, which was hosted with excellent efficiency by Ms Yu Lu of the China Chamber of Commerce for Foodstuffs and Native Produce, and featured delegates from many of the world’s major tea growing and consuming nations.

The warmth of the welcome left none of us in any doubt that China wishes to embrace the global tea community. With over 40% of the world’s tea production, this is important. Viewed through the eyes of buyers in the west, the challenges associated with supply from China are very different from other tea growing origins.

This emerged very clearly from the conference panel session on sustainability moderated by ETP’s Amanda Penn. In fact, our Regional Manager in China, John Qin, was quoted in the country’s largest national press agency, Xin Hua News, with his succinct summary of the situation. Due to the rapid social and economic development of China, he explained that sustainability challenges such as labour shortages and supply chain complexity present greater challenges than some of the social issues faced in other tea origins. 

Elsewhere, concerns about the basic living standards of tea workers and low wages dominate the agenda. By contrast, in China, the tea growing industry is embedded in what is palpably fast becoming a first world economy. Producers at the conference echoed this sentiment, and spoke about the effects of labour shortages and rising wage costs. It is not surprising then that mechanisation is moving ahead apace. Nonetheless, buyers remain concerned about traceability through complex supply chains (80% of Chinese tea is grown by smallholders) and the use of pesticides.

There are strict regulations governing pesticide use in tea. The Chinese industry is clearly keen to work with Western markets to improve access for their product offering. Important practical, collaborative steps were agreed on this including the extension of ETP farmer training activities in areas such as integrated pest management, which will support producers in meeting foreign market requirements.

I left the conference feeling optimistic that relationships with the Chinese tea industry are developing positively. My particular hope is that the Chinese fascination with mobile technology can be brought to bear on the tea supply chain and help us to discover new, more productive tools for managing traceability and product quality through supply chains dominated by smallholder farmers. All the growth in tea output worldwide is coming from smallholders, so this traceability will increasingly be on the agenda. Our Chinese colleagues living in a digitally advanced world, are well placed to help with this.

I brought back many vivid memories of the visit, the landscape for sure, the warmth of the welcome from our hosts, the quality of the infrastructure in the countryside, and the enthusiastic engagement of the farmers who attended our ETP training event on pest management.