How a female leader changed Nilgiris tea
Supriya Sahu turned things around by improving quality and providing better prices for farmers
If you have ever been to Coonoor, it’s likely that you would have stopped at Bedford for a meal or to shop, or because it’s on the way to everywhere else…. So when I saw a packet advertising Bedford tea from the Nilgiris, there was only one thing to do—buy it.
This is the story of a tea cooperative, a story of the Nilgiri hills, a story of how a good leader can bring about change. It’s also the story of the underdog.
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The Bedford tea is part of a range of teas by INDCOSERVE, a cooperative federation of Small Tea Growers and Bought Leaf Factories in the Nilgiris that was started by the Tamil Nadu government. Strangely enough, the cooperative model has not been particularly successful in the world of Indian tea. And so it was with the INDCO cooperative. Started in 1965, it was not very successful or profitable despite being the largest tea cooperative federation in India.
Today it has 30,000 small farmers as members, with 16 affiliate tea factories that process the harvest of about 14 million kilograms of black tea annually. Yet their teas had not made it to the retail market until now. And that, I find, is because the production consisted entirely of dust tea, which was—and continues to be—sold through the public distribution system (PDS), making its way to 30,000 ration shops across the state. That remains the significant market.
What has changed, and shines the spotlight on INDCOSERVE, is its current head.
Two years ago, it got a new CEO in Supriya Sahu, an IAS officer. The hills, she says, are not new for her. Twenty years ago, she was the district collector of the Nilgiris district. So, it was like coming back. And taking charge of INDCOSERVE brought both a challenge and an opportunity.
In less than two years, she has turned things around—better tea, better prices for farmers, and a wider avenue for sales. Most significantly, factories that were making a loss have been able to turn in profits.
There’s a new retail range with 11 teas, including the Bedford, on offer, up from three. In the pipeline are a Nilgiri kahwa, a Nilgiri-Madurai jasmine tea, a mint tea, and a masala tea. While they are not artisanal or special or even orthodox teas, they are not just dust either. They are leaf teas that display quintessential Nilgiris characteristics of aroma and brightness, and are well suited for milk tea.
Sahu’s Twitter and Instagram feeds are full of people, the bison, panthers and flying squirrels, of yoga and running in the hills—punctuated with tea gardens, tea factories and some nifty branding. On the ground, if you are walking through Coonoor or Ooty, you are likely to spot, and stop at, the red food trucks. These are INDCO’s tea vandis, food trucks that market INDCO teas along with local snacks and food. Each has a sign that says Aadhimalai, a reference to the collective of tribal producers that partners INDCO in this initiative.
It’s a heartwarming sign of a connect to the community.
INDCOSERVE teas are available on their website, and some also on Amazon. The kahwa and other blends will be available in a couple of months.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.@AravindaAnanth1