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Nepali tea producer soaks up new interest from Europe

Nepali tea producer soaks up new interest from Europe

KATHMANDU -- The political unrest halting tea production since June in India's Darjeeling region has European buyers looking toward Himalayan Shangri-La Tea Producers, a company in neighboring Nepal.

"French and British tea buyers have visited us to seek alternative sourcing of orthodox tea," Kamal Raj Mainali, director of Himalayan Shangri-La Tea Producers, told the Nikkei Asian Review. The company is Nepal's largest organic orthodox tea producer.

"Orthodox tea," also known as loose leaf tea, is produced with traditional methods such as plucking, withering, rolling, fermentation and drying. Gaining fame as specialty tea, consumption of this type has increased in recent years, especially in Europe. Orthodox tea gives producers a higher price than "crush, tear, curl tea" -- or CTC tea, which goes through cylindrical rollers and serrated blades for faster production.

Darjeeling's estimated annual output of 8,000 tons makes the region a well-known center for orthodox tea, as the hilly climate suits traditional production. Though no global production statistics exist for specialty tea, Darjeeling is regarded as "the number one supplier," Mainali said.

Despite Nepal's smaller annual production of about 5,000 tons, mostly in the eastern part of the country, Mainali said that "the quality of our orthodox tea is almost the same as Darjeeling's, and only we can fill the market of Darjeeling, because the climate condition is similar here."

The company produces only organic orthodox tea, about 150 tons annually, in Nepal's eastern province of Ilam, and enjoys a roughly 30% production share of such tea in the country. Of 900 contracted farmers, 548 are already certified as organic farms by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia, while the rest are in the process of certification.

"A British buyer recently visited Ilam Valley, and they brought back our tea leaves sample to their home for tasting it with their own water," Mainali said, expecting to receive a commercial deal.

European tea buyers began seeking new suppliers from Nepal after the unrest erupted in Darjeeling at the beginning of June. Local political party Gorkha Janamukti Morcha initiated strikes to resist an order by the West Bengal government imposing the Bengali language as mandatory in local schools. The party started to claim a decades-old demand to separate Darjeeling into a new state of India, splitting from West Bengal.

Tea production also halted in Darjeeling due to the local tea workers demanding a minimum wage, and a call for an indefinite shutdown from the Morcha.

"I have been in this tea industry [for the] past 35 years, and there were strikes in Darjeeling even in the past, but for the period of one to three days," Mainali said. "I had never seen such a long strike." If the unrest continues, "it will help us to reach out to more international buyers."

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