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Transforming tea estates and impacting lives in northern India [part 1]

AMBO-IN-23.jpgFebruary 21 2017

Deep in the northern mountains of India, lies Darjeeling, a region known for producing the best designated teas. What makes that perfect cup of steaming Darjeeling possible, are the thousands of people working on tea estates.

Tea estate owners in India are obliged to support their workers by offering them basic needs such as food, water, a minimum wage and more. The lives of many workers are dependent on these estates and when they fail, owners often abandon them and leave the workers and their families with nothing.

Reversing the damaging effects of failed estates

Against the backdrop of such challenges, Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates Private Limited (DOTEPL) has focused on expanding the production of tea in Darjeeling by purchasing and restoring abandoned estates. DOTEPL has been successful since the purchase of its first estate, Ambootia, which is internationally known for its delicious and high-quality tea. In fact, the estate’s tea has become so well known that DOTEPL now operates under the brand name The Ambootia Tea Group. Over the last 12 years, the family business has bought 15 of the 87 existing Darjeeling estates and continues to astonish people with its tasty tea products.

DOTEPL is not only making incredible strides in the quality of tea throughout Darjeeling, but is also transforming the lives of the workers and their families. Making sure the workers are well supported and paid fair wages is a priority. And while this may seem ordinary, DOTEPL stands out in a country like India, which has more people trapped in slavery than any other country in the world (over 18 million).

In addition to a minimum wage, housing, and food; workers are provided fuel, footwear, protective clothing, winter blankets and basic medical treatment free of cost. Free milk is distributed through the Infant Nutrition Programme and each child is entitled to free primary education. Also, social security includes provident and pension funds, gratuity and support for dependants.

A lasting partnership to make an impact in Darjeeling

Bharat Khemka, vice-president and deputy chief financial officer of DOTEPL, shared how Oikocredit has assisted in this initiative by stepping in as one of the equity investors: “We have used the funds to acquire struggling, abandoned and derelict estates,” he says. “Thousands of people were in a precarious situation. Their basic wages weren’t being paid, their homes were dilapidated and they were unable to lead normal lives. With Oikocredit’s help we were able to buy these estates and we are working on turning them into profitable businesses.’’

Oikocredit was eager to work with DOTEPL and entered into a partnership with the company in 2013 because of its focus on redeveloping the estates, supporting its workers, working with local producers, and using best ecological practices. In 2016, Oikocredit support DOTEPL with another equity investment, continuing to support the turnaround of abandoned tea estates.

All the estates grow organic tea and DOTEPL’s estates are the only ones in Darjeeling to use seeds from older trees that were produced on the estate. This improves the quality and strength of the tea bushes because they have the same genetics and have much longer roots to help feed the plant, which is crucial for the harsh dry seasons. The plantations are cultivated according to biodynamic techniques, using the energy of the earth to improve the health of the soil and the plants.

Anil Bansal, director of DOTEPL, who looks after 15 tea estates in Darjeeling, explains that experience is very valuable for growing high-quality tea, but to revive the estates they especially need people with energy and new ideas. Read more about transforming the estates and rebuilding trust with the workers in part 2 of our partner story, here.

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