Beating the odds and brewing it right in the time of COVID-19 pandemic

How India’s largest tea cooperative, INDCOSERVE, turned the pandemic into a business opportunity

Published - February 11, 2022 01:35 am IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

Upturn in demand:  Some tea packets of INDCOSERVE, displayed at the INDCO tea factory near Kotagiri.

Upturn in demand: Some tea packets of INDCOSERVE, displayed at the INDCO tea factory near Kotagiri.

When the first complete lockdown was announced after the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, Supriya Sahu, CEO of INDCOSERVE, the “largest tea cooperative federation in India”, had to choose between two options. “We could either close all our factories and give up, or do something to help small tea growers ensure that their livelihoods are not too badly affected,” says Ms. Sahu, an Additional Chief Secretary rank IAS officer. She chose the latter.

“When the pandemic hit, we realised various governments and organisations were giving tea as part of their COVID-relief packages. We reached out to State governments and these organisations, who gave us substantial orders for our tea,” she says, talking of the revival story.

Expanded portfolio

The Coonoor-headquartered INDCOSERVE, which began operations in 1965, has over 30,000 small tea growers as members and a federation of 16 tea factories. Until 2019, it produced only three varieties of tea, with minimal focus on packaging and marketing and little demand. However, the pandemic threw up challenges, which helped turn around its fortunes and it has expanded its portfolio of home-grown teas to 11 varieties.

Despite the restrictions in interstate movement of goods vehicles and other factors, planning and co-ordination between INDCOSERVE, theNilgirisdistrict administration and the State government, ensured a timely and efficient fulfilment of orders. “We had multiple protocols in place to ensure that our staff were kept safe. This was especially difficult as it was prior to the roll out of the vaccine. Such was the efficacy of the protocols followed, that not a single one of our factory staff contracted COVID-19 during the first wave,” says Ms. Sahu.

To improve the quality of tea leaves supplied to factories, 106 green tea leaf supervisors were appointed at tea leaf collection centres, leading to an improvement in tea quality. Tea blenders were also brought in to ensure taste and quality. Causative factors leading to the factories making losses were also identified and steps were taken to address these issues, while modernisation of equipment was undertaken with funds from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development.

“The pandemic challenges and the response made workers and those part of INDCOSERVE realise our true potential,” adds Ms. Sahu.

Last year, INDCOSERVE teas obtained Trustea and Fairtrade certifications, which mean the teas could now be exported. In fact, the Indian embassy in Japan has procured INDCOSERVE teas to offer it to guests to the embassy.

Part of the reason for the upturn in demand for the teas is also due to investment in packaging and marketing the teas, with professionally designed attractive packaging and branding that emphasises some unique locations in the Nilgiris. Some of the teas are named after places in the district– ‘BlueMont Tea’ ‘Indco’s Bedford Tea’ and ‘Indco’s Marlimund Tea.’ “INDCOSERVE’s slogan is ‘We celebrate small tea growers.’ We wanted to come up with names that reflect the pride we have in the Nilgiris and its tea growers,” saysMs. Sahu.

The federation’s website was also revamped as part of the upheaval. Now, potential customers can purchase teas directly from their website, while some are available in other e-commerce platforms as well. INDCO “tea vandis ”(vehicles)have also been launched in the Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Tirupur and Chennai, further boosting brand awareness among young people.

‘Carbon-neutral tea’

INDCOSERVE has also unveiled plans to produce “carbon-neutral tea,” in a revamped factory in Kaikatty.According toMs. Sahu, the factory, once fully revamped, will be powered by solar energy. “There will be no wood-firing at all in the factory and the tea leaves will also be produced organically,” she says, adding that she hopesthe factory would serve to be a model that can be replicated by other tea factories in the Nilgiris and Tamil Nadu.

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