This week, I returned from an eye-opening trip to China. Having recently added China to my regional portfolio, it was a fantastic opportunity to see first-hand how and why the tea industry in China operates so differently from other regions. I travelled with our very astute regional manager, John Qin, who acted not only as my colleague, but as an excellent guide, travel agent, interpreter, and teacher of Chinese culture.
We visited with export company representatives, toured various factories and farms, met with professors from the Zhejiang Tea Research Institute, and had a lovely dinner with colleagues from Rainforest Alliance. In fact, I was treated to so many delicacies and local specialties (including fried tea leaves!) over generously hosted lunches and dinners that at times it was hard remember whether my trip was supposed to revolve around tea or sampling every dish that Zhejiang province has to offer.
As a result our visits and conversations, I feel that I now understand some of the reasons for the complexity and opaqueness of the tea supply chains in China. In particular, I learned that the very local processing of leaf means there is much more flexibility in the distances that leaf can be transported for final processing. Therefore, the supply base for exporting factories is much broader than it would be in other countries. This highlights for me the importance of the work ETP is undertaking in China not only from the end processing level down, but also from the farmer level up the supply chain. In fact, while I was visiting blending and preliminary factories, two teams of researchers were interviewing farmers and other community level stakeholders as part of the needs assessment work ETP is carrying out across four provinces in China. I’m looking forward to the results, upon which we can build effective partnerships and programmes with Chinese tea farmers.
During my visit I shadowed our human resources training course, led by local HR expert, Grace Wang. Having worked on a practical toolkit for the Chinese tea industry developed by Grace and ETP, it was great to see the course and toolkit in action. Although it was conducted in Mandarin, I could tell by the levels of attentiveness, note taking, and some lively Q&A that the participants were interested and engaged. I felt assured that we were providing a useful service that will enable factories to improve their HR management systems, a fundamental component of good working conditions.
I am sorry to report to green tea drinkers out there that a cold spell brought the spring tea season to an early end in Zhejiang province and has delayed it in other provinces. Although the weather was unseasonably cool and there were a few days when I was thankful for my trusty fleece jacket, I didn’t think it was particularly cold. The tea buds felt rather differently though and I was surprised that the plants are so sensitive. Where plucking takes place year round, some bad weather is a temporary impediment. Where plucking is a seasonal affair, inclement weather brings the harvest to an abrupt end. This is a particular burden considering that the spring tea leaves are hand plucked, which creates intense pressure to bring the valuable fresh spring buds in rapidly. When I say valuable, it’s important to note that premium teas can cost £18 for one cup!
Folks in the tea industry often talk about mechanised plucking being the future of the tea industry. It seems to me that in China, the future has arrived, at least for the non-spring tea. I was very excited to witness for the first time, the swift and steady buzz of a plucking machine guided across neat rows of tea bushes and quickly understood how advantageous this is in an industry with an ageing and diminishing work force. The machines reminded me of giant vacuum cleaners, with teeth.
I’ve come back from China knowing that what I’ve seen and learned is only the tip of the iceberg, but nonetheless feeling enthused with ideas about which challenges ETP should focus on in the short term and how we can achieve greater impacts in China in the longer term. I hope I can go back next year to spend more time touring the tea regions with John, nurturing the relationships I’ve started on this trip, build new ones, and to start looking at the rest of the iceberg. And I must also try some of these: