Assam's 'Tea Tokri' is reshaping industry needs with innovation and …

The idea of tea is very central to the cultural identity of Assam. As the global market for tea grows exponentially, young entrepreneurs are looking for newer ways to drive in this change in the state’s ecosystem as well. We at TNT speak exclusively to the minds behind the setting up of “Tea Tokri”.
TNT – Tell us a bit about the conceptualization behind Tea Tokri. How the three of you got together to form the start-up?
The Vision of Tea Tokri is to develop a Tea culture in India that goes beyond the normal Indian Chai. India and Assam in particular produces high quality teas. Indians are deprived of drinking this elixir as most of them are exported to western countries at very high cost. Through Tea Tokri we are providing the highest quality Teas to our Indian customers at the most affordable rates.

The name Tea Tokri refers to the Bamboo Tukris that Tea workers use to collect tea leaves after plucking. Visiting any Tea garden in Assam you can see women working in the garden carrying those beautiful bamboo Tokris. We see it as a symbol of our Assamese heritage and culture.
Through Tea Tokri we want to spread the rich cultural heritage of Assam. For that along with our Premium Tea orders we gift a special handcrafted Bamboo and Cane Tokri. Through these handicrafts, we have been able to work with self help groups in Upper Assam and help them reach talent worldwide. The helps us to create a sustainable ecosystem around Tea in Assam.
Three of us Kumar Jyoti Dey, Anshuman Purkayastha and Ankita Sharma being born & brought up in Assam, have always been fascinated by the sights and sounds of Assamese Tea Industry. During our stay in different parts of India, we would yearn for that authentic Tea experiences that we felt in Assam. Even bigger Tea stores would have low quality Tea from previous season and missed the flavor and aroma of fresh teas of Assam. Seeing this vacuum in market, we decided to explore this potential. Over long telephone conversation and skype we discussed about the loopholes in the traditional market model and how Tea Tokri could make a difference. We wanted to build our DNA in a way, where we could transfer the majority of the profit from the Middlemen / Brokers in the trade to the actual tea growers and to our customers. We did extensive study on the existing market, tea vendors, grades of tea and also customer preferences. On visiting the Tea gardens we could understand how to take it forward as an Ethical Tea setup where all stakeholders are benefitted. Those two years of learning, networking and tasting Tea gave us the knowledge to implement our ideas.

TNT – After studying the tea trade in Assam, what prospects did you feel you have for starting a venture like Tea Tokri?
From our market analysis, we realized that major domestic demand is for CTC teas or the normal Indian Chai. Most people in India didn’t have any experience of drinking other premium teas like Orthodox Teas , Green Tea , White Tea, Oolong Tea, Tribal teas etc which are much more healthier and have unique taste and aroma which are popular world over. So through social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and blogs we started making people aware of these teas , their benefits as well as the taste and how to prepare them.
But the real challenges that we felt while operating from Assam were logistics & shipping, fulfilling complex regulatory norms, lack of financial resources which made our job tougher.
TNT – As you mentioned that the rights of tea garden workers are violated. How do you plan to correct the existing situation of economic and social exploitation?
Since Childhood we were mesmerized by the beauty of the Tea gardens but after travelling across multiple tea gardens we could see the exploitation of tea workers. Majority of the profit goes in the hands of the Brokers and Middlemen, denying the tea workers their rightful share in the tea trade. As an Assamese start up we are passionate about changing the way the Tea business is run. One of the first things we did was to focus on working with small Tea growers who use organic methods but don’t have the money for Organic certification. We have developed a profit sharing model that works to the benefit of everyone involved.

Also 5% from our sales goes to #Fundmychildhood campaign through which we work with garden schools to provide them educational aids. Taking care of the community that makes our Tea is something that motivates us. As a startup our resources till now are limited but as we grow the focus on an ethical Tea setup will only continue to increase and we hope to create a sustainable Tea community in Assam with Tea Tokri.
TNT – As you are working with small garden owners as well as the bigger players, did you feel any differences while getting along ?
There is of course a difference between working with small and big sized gardens. The small Tea growers are more ready to change and are looking for access to new markets for their products. They are also willing to implement ideas and suggestions quickly. Creating a community and accepting technology and change is seen much more in small Tea growers and they remain our primary focus.
While the larger Tea gardens have established markets and we as a startup can’t buy in bulk, so initially it was a problem. But in the last six months we have developed a cordial business relationship with 20 big sized gardens from Upper Assam and have done co-branding sessions with them. The idea is to develop the Premium Assam Tea brand across the world. From next month we are starting to export our Tea around the world and we plan to work in coordination with all stakeholders of Assam Tea Industry and look forward to their support as they have done till now.
TNT – Many start-ups use “tea tasting sessions”, “tea appreciation” workshops in attracting potential youth consumers. What were your techniques?
One of our primary focus is to reach new audience through social media as well organize Tea tasting session in different Indian cities. We did a tea tasting session in Hyderabad recently and people really liked the new flavours that they hadn’t tasted before. In the next few months as we are launching a new version of our Website Tea Tokri 2.0 we plan to intensify our marketing efforts. Also we have the option of ordering trial packs from our website.
TNT – Do you think that the lack of R&D in scientific technologies is eating up the potential of the tea indutry?
Not investing in technology and research and unwillingness to create new products has been one of the primary reasons why other tea growing regions are getting ahead in the race. Tea industries from Kenya , Sri Lanka , Nepal are slowly getting ahead of Assam. Tocklai Research centre for years has been the source of Tea related innovation in Assam. But we need private Tea companies to also expand their research and development funding for more innovative and better Tea. At Tea Tokri we have a dedicated scientific team who do the analysis of the Tea before procurement. By this we ensure only quality tea reaches our customers. Keeping the Tea fresh for our customers and getting them sealed at source is something we are working on. We plan to increase our capabilities as we move ahead.

TNT – What is your take on the tea industry in India and how o you see Assam taking on MNCs in this sector?
The first focus that all Tea companies from Assam should have is on building the brand of Assam. We now have GI (Geographical Indicator) tag for Assam Orthodox Teas and the focus has to be on quality rather than blindly being in race to produce more. Competing with MNCs will only be possible if domestic industry focuses on quality. And rather than being followers we have to come up with our own indigenous solutions for branding and marketing our teas.
TNT – You have grown to 5 million cups…..what are your future plans? How much does industry associations like CII come in help?
Our Near future plan is to start our international operations and to carry the legacy of 175 year old Assamese Tea Industry. Our immediate lookout is to improve on product procurement, efficiency of supply chain management, logistics and quality customer service. We plan to include more 150 tea growers into our network by this year. Our focus will be to introduce newer tea blends which will give multiple choices to our valued customers.
We are thankful for the warm support that we have received till now from all our stake holders. We look forward to more encouragement and support from industry veterans and Assamese People. Besides this from October we would be launching special tour packages for domestic as well international tourist for garden stay as well tourism visits to Assam and North East. This is one area where which also has special relevance to us at personal levels!
By Payal Bhattacharjee for TNT- The Northeast Today News
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