A leaf from the Vedas

Ambootia Tea Group is one of the most well-known brands in the world of Darjeeling tea – be it for the quality and flavor of their range, the sustainable practices followed by them, or their reputation for reviving sick tea estates.

Sanjay Bansal, Chairman, Ambootia Group, was born in the Ambootia Tea Estate (Ambootia means the place of mango trees) and spent his childhood in the tea garden (although, he also admits that he had his first cup of tea at the age of 17!). When his father took over the estate in 1987, Sanjay was asked to go and turn it around. The garden was set up in Kurseung North over a surface area of 966.7 hectares. It had become a sick unit when it was taken over by its present management.

The company adopted the biodynamic method of farming to turn around the plantation. Interestingly, this holistic farming practice, which was initiated by Austrian scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner, has been influenced by ancient Vedic practices of agriculture. Today, the biodynamic farming initiative at Ambootia Tea Estate is recognized as a successful case study in the field. Ambootia uses preparations from locally available herbs and fermented manure to grow the tea crop. The tea grown is of better quality and flavor and is also healthier. A 100 KVA Hydel Project was also made operational in 2004, which powers the factory during the period from June to October. The management has also been cognizant of the needs of workers with a specific focus on areas like healthcare, education, nutrition, and income augmentation.

After the success of this venture, there has been no looking back as the group managed to replicate this achievement across other sick units that it subsequently acquired. Ambootia Tea Group is now the largest producer of Biodynamic Organic Tea in the World. Its operations are integrated across the value chain to include cultivating, processing, warehousing, blending, packaging, and marketing of its tea. The group has benchmarked itself successfully to international standards of production and food safety by implementing good agricultural practices (GAP), good manufacturing practices (GMP), and food safety for market access. It now has eleven tea estates in Darjeeling and one in Assam.

Innovation has also been a critical success factor for Ambootia over the years. It has built a formidable positioning for itself through its high-quality Darjeeling Organic teas. More than 35 varieties are currently on offer from Ambootia’s portfolio, which commands exceptionally high prices in the international market (going up to £ 5,000 per kg). It has created a range of more than 35 varieties of high-end Speciality Darjeeling Organic Teas. Ambootia’s Brumes D’Himalaya, for instance, is specially made for French gourmet tea company Mariage Freres, and the Spring Dance tea is sold at the popular Harrods store in London.

The company bases its marketing strategy on three principles – quality, trust, and confidence; relationships and brands. Ambootia’s management has developed close relationships at the senior level with client organizations, enabling them to respond swiftly and effectively to client needs. It has also been able to successfully leverage co-branding efforts to build its brand equity in strategic markets. Generally, the co-branding happens with the specific name of the tea estate. The company is also looking at taking its branding efforts to the next level, as Sanjay Bansal affirms, “We are also looking at taking it (branding) forward and possibly having our own brand in domains that do not cannibalize on our existing marketing arrangements.” With strong foundations based on sustainable farming and dynamic business practices that have been recognized by customers across the globe, Ambootia is certainly well-positioned to take this next leap of faith.

Coffee Cultivation and Culture – Unique to India

Coffee has been cultivated in India since the 17th century and has become one of the prominent plantation crops in India.

The way India grows coffee is unique – under a canopy of different varieties of shade trees which ensures that the canopy of tree cover is always maintained. These shade trees ( usually in 2 tiers ) provide a unique microclimate that enables it to sustain a wide variety of flora & fauna. In fact, very few countries have this type of “shade tree microenvironment”. This biodiversity available in Indian coffee plantations is quite simply phenomenal and Indian Coffee scores high on all environmental friendly parameters, when compared to not only coffee, is grown in other countries but also across all other farming/ crop systems ( agricultural crops like paddy, wheat, cotton, sugarcane or other plantation crops like tea, areca nut, etc )

India is also unique in that both the varieties of coffee – Arabica & Robusta are grown. While our Arabica is used in high-quality blends in most of the very sophisticated markets like Germany, Italy & Belgium; our Robustas are considered as the best in the world! In fact, Indian washed Robustas command a substantial premium in the world market and is used in making the world-famous espressos and cappuccinos. 70 % of our coffees are exported and almost all are at a premium. This is again unique when compared to other products exported from India which is usually at a discount.

Coffee cultivation changed from being small family farms into organized plantations primarily during the British reign. Coffee plantations as we know today is a result of painstaking hard work and efforts put in by legendary planters of the 19th and early 20th century. After independence, the ownership gradually changed hands to Indian owners who continued in the tradition of maintaining well-managed plantations.

Since coffee plantations were located in remote areas and hilly terrain; the only means of socializing was the local Club which has led to the unique plantation culture seen till today. Local communities in the prime plantation districts take pride in their respective Clubs which are often the hub of all socio-economic activities.

In Karnataka which produces 70 % of India’s coffee; the 3 main coffee growing districts are Chikmagalur, Kodagu & Hassan. One visit to any of these districts will awe the casual visitor of the sheer greenness and tree canopy cover present everywhere. In fact on most mountain slopes it is not possible to make out that there is coffee grown over there; such is the amount of tree cover found in India! This coupled with the numerous water resources that are preserved by the planters truly makes coffee plantations a biodiversity wonder that maintains the ecological balance and harmony like no other farming/business model!

Rejuvenation of tea and coffee estates, the POABS way

Poabs Estates of Kerala is committed to the plantation sector in India and has taken up rejuvenation of tea and coffee estates as a strategic endeavor. The growth of Poabs Estates, part of the Poabs Group, over the past 25 years demonstrates how century-old abandoned estates can be revived, for the greater good of society and contribution to Indian exports.

Nelliyampathy

The story begins in 1989 when Poabs Estates took over the then 100-year old Seethargundu Estate in the Nelliyampathy Hills of Palakkad district of Kerala in the Western Ghats of India. The estate was in a derelict condition having existed, for all practical purposes, in an abandoned state for some 16 years. Poabs took up the challenge of sorting out the pending problems left by the previous owners and resolved to revive the estate. Much inspiration came from the late Mr. P.A. Jacob, then the Founder Chairman, who strongly supported organic agriculture as the means for the supply of quality, hygienic, and safe food products.

The previous neglect of the estate was taken as a blessing in disguise, as this had in effect allowed the land to lie fallow, laying the ground for organic farming. A key step forward in the rejuvenation process involved replanting: old plant material was replaced with improved varietals of coffee, cardamom, and pepper. Tea planting was done afresh to bring in an additional crop – creating in the process the first such large-scale tea plantation established since the colonial era, furthermore, under entirely organic systems. The initial years were spent in designing and adopting good soil conservation and water harvesting techniques.

A fresh trajectory came about in the year 2000 when Poabs Estates took a strategic decision – many considered it a risky move at that stage – to adopt Biodynamic processes. Biodynamic agriculture requires a holistic approach that is now recognized as a variant of organic farming.

The conversion to biodynamic agriculture started in 2000, and within three years of regeneration, the estate was thriving. However, getting to this point required a lot of commitment, in terms of finance and will power. Compared to conventional farming, biodynamic agriculture requires practically double the effort. Fortunately, there was a significant drop in the incidence of pest and disease attacks ever since converting to biodynamic processes.

The plantation remains till today the largest perennial multi-crop organic estate in the world, at an average elevation of 3500 feet, and grows Arabica and Robusta coffee and tea along with inter-crops of pepper, cardamom, orange, and vanilla. Certified since April 2003 by Demeter, the oldest organic certification label for biodynamic products, the estate is a veritable demonstration farm for biodynamic processes.

The Tea Factory, Coffee Pulping unit for washed coffees, Pepper Mill, and Freeze-Drying facilities were made operational in stages. Within five years of going biodynamic, the estates were visibly transformed – and now yield a variety of organic produce in demand in international markets.

Central Travancore

Poabs Estates has made a significant entry into the Central Travancore planting district in Kerala, with the acquisition of several tea estates which were originally part of Travancore Tea Estates, a British sterling tea company which commenced operations in 1897. Currently, Pambanar, Granby, Manjamullay, Injikadu, Nellikai, Pasumallay, and Thengakal tea estates are part of Poabs Estates.

On June 25, 2008, the Poabs Group re-opened the estates which had been ailing for nearly a decade and were closed on the orders of the Local Government since 2002.

After taking over, Poabs reached a settlement on the wage dispute and effected the payments to the workers. Simultaneously, an enormous effort went into the rehabilitation of the estates – clearing weeds and getting the over-grown tea-bushes back into the bearing. While each estate originally had factories attached to them, the factories were in complete disrepair when Poabs took over, and general infrastructure including estate bungalows, roads, facilities for estate workers, etc., were in bad shape.

By end-2009, tea harvesting had re-commenced on a regular basis, re-planting, in-filling and planting of shade trees were undertaken in phases. Initially, the leaf was sold to other factories for processing, while three factories were taken up for renovation. Currently, the Granby and Thengakal factories are fully operational, and all tea harvested in our seven Travancore estates is processed on-site between the two factories. The Nellikai factory is being completely modernized with the latest tea manufacturing machinery.

The combined assets in the Nelliyampathy Hills and in the Central Travancore region make Poabs Estates one of the large plantation companies in Kerala today.

Certifications

Poabs Organic Estates is certified ‘biodynamic’ by Demeter-International of Germany and is also farm certified by organic certifiers Naturland of Germany and Skal International. The estate conforms to requirements under the National Organic Programme of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS). Bureau Veritas Quality International (BVQI) of the UK has awarded Poabs an ISO 9001:2000 rating for quality management systems at the farm, and the tea factory, established in 2001, has implemented and certified food safety assurance systems under ‘Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point’ (HACCP).

Poabs Organic Estates is certified “Organic” by Control Union Certifications, an authorized certification agency as per the guidelines of the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) initiated by the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India. Control Union has identified Poabs Organic Estates as the “largest perennial multi-crop organic farm in the world” and refers to it as such in all documentation.

The tea produced at Poabs Estates is Fairtrade-certified by the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO), and tea, coffee and spices endorsed by Bio-equitable Fairtrade. Poabs Estates was the first plantation company in South India to be certified by Rainforest Alliance, in January 2014. Poabs Estates is part of the Ethical Tea Partnership and Poabs teas are Kosher-certified.

Global recognition

Poabs Estates has received several awards over the years for coffee in the Flavour of India – The Fine Cup competitions operated by the Coffee Board of India, and for organic orthodox, black and green tea at the Golden Leaf Awards operated by the United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI).

Notably, Poabs received the Sustainability Award – 2007 from the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) at the 19th Annual Conference and Exhibition held at Long Beach California, the first company from India to receive this prestigious award, which is considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the world of coffee cultivation. The SCAA is the world’s largest coffee trade association with member companies from more than 40 countries. In 2007, a total of 22 projects from around the world made it to the final round.

The citation stated that Poabs Organic/Biodynamic Estates “is an exemplary global model for sustainability. It is an example of a holistic, self-sustainable, bio-diverse eco-system. Workers and their families benefit from housing, education, dairy farms, and medical care. Coffee is planted under a double canopy of shade with much of the original native trees intact.”

Poabs Estates is part of the Poabs Group, a diversified enterprise with interests in plantations, biotechnology, waste management, infrastructure, and eco-tourism headquartered in Tiruvalla, Kerala.