Tea has a long history in India. The British first introduced it into India in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. Using Chinese seeds and their planting and cultivating techniques, the British launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export. In the 1950s, after a successful advertising campaign by the India Tea Board, it started to become a popular drink and India became one of the largest producers of tea in the world.
Today, Vijayalakshmi Natural Farms Private Limited, a startup, wants to revolutionize the tea industry in India. SocialStory met founder Suresh Nanjan over a cup of tea to know how he came upon this idea. His extraordinary story took us by surprise and we are sure you will be inspired too.
Suresh has a post graduate degree in MCA and he worked as a quality engineer mainly doing software automation. Now he is living a second life with Vijayalakshmi. “The company is named Vijayalakshmi after my sister. Following a failed marriage, she picked herself up and resolved to sustain herself and her son, Vishal. Because she was a college dropout she did not want an office job but decided to do something on her own in the agriculture sector, especially tea cultivation,” says Suresh.
But behind the simple passion for the tea industry, there was a social impact that Vijayalakshmi wanted bring about. She wanted to help the Nilgiris district which is home to about 450 villages and where majority of the community is dependent on farming. Most cultivatable areas in Nilgiris were converted to tea plantations due to the incentives provided by the Tea Board of India. Every farmer who grows tea supplies it to a nearby private and Indco factories for further processing. Farmers get paid depending on the bid fetched by the processed tea in the auction centres.
In 1998, due to the slowdown and major restructuring of the then USSR, which was a major importer of Indian tea, there was a major downslide in tea prices. The entire community could not even sustain their day-to-day expenses causing a major social upheaval. People took to the streets in protest against the government demanding stable prices for farmers.
Suresh, together with his sister, worked on the problem and they started studying the market in a scientific manner. “The major factor for this instability was inferior quality of tea. Nilgiri tea was known only for producing low grade CTC teas. Other major regions like Darjeeling, which has an exalted status for its quality of tea, have correctly identified that quality tea is what will sustain in the long run. Due to this quality consciousness they are able to determine and demand a steady price always balancing the demand and supply equation. On researching this aspect we figured that most farmers don’t even know what happens to the raw leaves once they have been sold to the bigger tea factories,” says Suresh.
They realised that they now had to help farmers produce high quality tea in order to be able to get a steady price. After reading several books on tea, especially Chinese teas of the premium grade, they were exposed to the world of exquisite teas. Surprisingly, the manufacturing techniques also did not demand huge machineries or upfront investment. The social media and the internet further opened up lot of avenues in the way of processing techniques and evaluation criteria which was freely available. They worked frantically with all this information and experimented regularly hands-on with the tea leaves, and their skill in processing tea increased exponentially. Taking inspiration from these experiments, Suresh’s brother Prabhu Nanjan came up with a valuable suggestion to adopt organic conversion in their 18 acre farm as well as their four acre vegetable garden. He spearheaded the entire execution of organic conversion in the farms using Bio Dynamic principles.
But suddenly a tragic event destroyed their plans. “Unfortunately, on March 31, 2009, we lost our sister Vijayalakshmi forever. She died due to a severe stroke that had manifested for the first time and was so severe that she slowly slipped into death. This threw our plans off track for about two years. However, the inspiration she left behind was not that easy to forget and we decided to make her dream come true. Between me and my brother Prabhu, we decided that either one will involve fulltime into this. After much deliberation, he quit his job as a Clinical Research Associate and laid his hands and heart fulltime into this,” says Suresh.
That’s how in 2013, they decided to start Vijayalakshmi Natural Farms Private Limited which will offer two major products, Teaneer, exclusive handcrafted Nilgiris teas, and Thaleer, fresh vegetables, which they plan to sell to consumers on a subscription model. The organic conversion of their land is complete and very soon they will start cultivation.
Suresh and Prabhu are working hard to establish the brand, Vijayalakshmi. “Major marketing was done through word of mouth and during the initial days we were just happy to give away samples to people to use. I have sent our samples to almost every food blogger in Bangalore and across India. The initial customers were mainly my very close friends. After our initial efforts we were comfortably getting repeat orders from about 100 customers. I also tried to reach to people in several business and startup forums like OCC Bangalore and TIE Bangalore. I was able to network with a lot of members to spread the word about our products,” says Suresh.
Looking at the future, Vijayalakshmi has big plans to expand and make their venture one of the most important in the tea market, but without forgetting their original mission and social cause that brought them here. “Once we realise our sister’s vision of sustainable living for the tea farmers, we will extend this as a community effort thereby facilitating other enterprising women in the neighbourhood. With our efforts we would like to provide a stepping stone for other entrepreneurs and together we will establish a specialty grade Nilgiris tea market which is non-existent today,” adds Suresh.