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.
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.
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.
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.
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.