by Phil on June 16th, 2014
I have been writing a weekly blog for Canton for almost 10 months now. The process has been pretty much the same each time: during the course of the week I reflect on either a specific tea (perhaps the tea in that week’s Tea Club), or on something more general, and the thoughts form as the week progresses. Some blogs have been better than others of course, but I have never missed a deadline. Until last week.
Time to turn the clock back?
Last week was a strange one. I did very little tasting, and was totally preoccupied with other things, in particular attending an assessment day at the end of an interview process. The approach came out of the blue two months ago via a recruitment company, and was related to the type of work I was doing in the 1990s, facilitating and managing ethical improvements in the supply chains of large companies. It wasn’t on my radar to go back into the world of global corporations, but I found it quite tantalising. The work I did back then gave me great satisfaction, and catalysed other, wider changes, and I still look back on it as a career high point. It is something that I think I am very good at, but I did not expect to be revisiting it in 2014. For the last six weeks or so I have been chewing it over: do I want to go back into that world, and to spend a lot of time working away from home? I would have expected a simple and resounding “no”, but there was a nagging feeling that I should take it seriously: only an interim role, perhaps lasting a year, and a chance to ‘put myself about’ a bit, shake a few trees. Maybe it would be an opportunity to do some good, to improve some corporate policy and behaviours. I decided to give it my best shot and just see what would happen, so that meant proper preparation, practising business case studies and so on. It felt like revising before an important exam. I was quite surprised how much it dominated my week.
In the end it didn’t work out – they weren’t sure about me and I wasn’t sure about them – but it did get me thinking hard about what I should be doing. In fact it raised the old chestnut of ‘doing the right thing’, in the broadest sense. Was I in danger of ‘selling out’? More of that later.
Changes at Makaibari
In amongst all this I did pick up on the news about Makaibari changing hands. This seems important to me as Makaibari has created a special place for itself in the world of Darjeeling teas, built around the charismatic owner, Rajah Banerjee (RB). The first thing to say is that I have never been to the Makaibari garden, but I find it stirring some strong feelings. Over the years, very many of the smaller tea buying companies have bought into the story – the pioneering work on organic and biodynamic cultivation, the imaginative garden projects, the empowerment of the workforce – cutting and pasting them into their own websites and (I would say) hanging on to RB’s coat tails. Being of a slightly sceptical disposition, I find myself asking how much of this stuff is true, and how much of it is weaved around the cult of the celebrity tea planter. I don’t doubt RB’s vision or his integrity in any way, it’s just that sometimes a story can take on a life of its own and become a little disconnected from the reality on the ground: so many people have bought into it, so many people want to believe it and celebrate it. Underneath the gloss, I expect that there will be similar issues to other tea gardens in Darjeeling and elsewhere in India – poverty wages, disenfranchised workers, and other things that don’t reflect the glossy story. This is only informed conjecture on my part, and if anyone reading this blog has proper first-hand experience of the garden, and can help me correct any errors, I would be pleased to do so. I am expecting to hear from one very valued friend who visited the garden a good while back: I know it made a big impression on her and influenced her thinking on tea. Maybe she can help bring some balance.
Makaibari became a darling of the Fairtrade and Organic Tea movement in Europe, the go-to supplier for a pre-packaged story. The Fairtrade movement in particular seem entranced by it, happy to swallow everything and use the story in its own promotional materials. It will have come as a surprise and perhaps even a shock to hear that RB has now sold a majority interest in the garden to the Luxmi group, who own tea gardens in Assam and also a local carpet making business. Reading through some press articles, it seems that the idea is to provide resources to develop Makaibari as a global brand, with RB remaining as a figurehead, but the strong connection between RB and the garden is bound to change over time. This will be a concern to those companies that have built their own stories around that of RB and Makaibari.
The importance of having your own story
I much prefer it when companies have their own stories to tell, rather than attaching themselves to someone else’s. It doesn’t have to be a big or remarkable story, but it needs to be their own. It’s possible to buy identical or at least very similar teas from a number of different sources these days, and when making that choice I always look at the story – the who, the why, and the how. I won’t name-check them, but there are people in this business whose love for the product just shines through everything that they do. They tend to be younger and smaller companies, who haven’t become obsessed with their own importance or even worse their ‘brand’. What they have is an infectious enthusiasm to share experiences, to compare notes and pass on tips. And most importantly for me, they don’t try to claim credit for the teas themselves, but have respect for the skills of the farmers and tea makers who created them.
I was reminded of this during the week when staying overnight with my mother-in-law on the way back from the interview. I found that I had my copy of the Canton ‘Secrets of the Tea Masters’ DVD in my laptop bag and thought she might like to watch some of it on her new and surprisingly large wall-mounted flat screen TV. We watched the full 45 minutes, and I had to leave it behind so she can show her friends, and it was good for me to watch it again. It was filmed last year in Yunnan, featuring the founder of Canton Tea Co., Jennifer Wood, and designed to explain how the company goes about sourcing its tea. It was a celebration of Yunnan, its tea culture and tea masters, with Jennifer appearing at various stages to explain. The whole thing could have been killed by the exposition of a professional, or by a voice-over added later, but what comes across is energy, enthusiasm and raw excitement just at being there. Bits of it are almost Tigger-like, and all the more brilliant because of that: this is a person who just loves Chinese tea, and it’s very infectious. For me, this is one of the things that characterises the company, and I find it a pleasure to work with them. Let that be the last we hear of the Phil & Jennifer mutual appreciation society.
There were also a few bits in the film from a wise old owl, which added some gravitas without spoiling it too much. Those of you familiar with the original Winnie the Pooh books might recognise some of Owl’s traits in these blogs – a bit stuffy, not as wise as he thinks, a tendency to pontificate…
My story – trying to do the right thing
There is more to my own story than buying tea. For fifteen years from 1993 – 2007 I was involved in a number of projects in what might loosely be described as ‘ethical trading’. This was while I was working in commercial companies, trying to make sense of what was possible in normal mainstream business rather than in specialist sectors such as Fairtrade. It was during one of these projects that I met K, the person who I am expecting to mail me on Makaibari. We travelled to India together to discuss some ideas with a large Assam producer, and have stayed in touch ever since. She has worked in the NGO sector in Europe but now lives in Canada and works in a global food business driving sustainability programs. She and I have always shared a good understanding of why such roles are important, even if some former colleagues would see them as ‘selling out’.
So that is how I found myself distracted from my normal week, preparing for another attempt at the greasy pole (as some would see it). It didn’t work out, which is OK, but I am still drawn to that type of role. Not permanently, not full time, and not at the expense of my work with Canton.
I’ll try not to be late again.