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Of the many things that bind the diverse length and breadth of our country, tea is the most fragrant thread. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly brewed tea scenting the early morning air? Coming from Assam, India’s largest producer of tea, these green leaves are more than just an energising brew for the farmers, it is the source of their daily bread.
After having worked for close to 20 years in tea gardens, Assam-based entrepreneur Ranjit Baruah is no stranger to the efforts taken to grow tea. He has not only perfected the ways to grow and process tea leaves, he also understands the problems that small tea growers face.
“Because I was working in a tea company, I would be posted in different tea-estates across Assam. And, in each of these regions, there were clusters of small tea growers who were producing some fantastic organic tea,” states the 44-year-old Guwahati resident.
However, Ranjit realised that since most of these growers lived in remote parts of Assam, they rarely had any proper channels for selling their high-quality organic tea. This leaves them with very little bargaining power and they have no choice but to sell the produce at whatever price the trader is willing to pay.
With the vision to empower these farmers, Ranjit and his wife Dolly Sharma Baruah brought them under one umbrella – Aromica Tea, their tea brand which they launched in October 2018. They began sourcing organic tea and began making flavoured tea blends.
Since they began their operations, Aromica Tea had launched over 26+ blends of different types of handcrafted teas. They source over 1,500 kgs of tea from about 250+ tea growers in a year and sell 450+ units of their products in a month!
Leaving Behind a Comfortable Life
Ranjit never planned on working in the tea gardens, let alone becoming an entrepreneur. In 1996, after completing his BSc degree in Anthropology from Cotton College (now Cotton University) in Guwahati, he went on to pursue a Diploma in Hospitality from The Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology & Applied Nutrition, Guwahati under PUSA, New Delhi.
Armed with this degree, he worked in the hospitality sector as a trainee for almost two years in well-known establishments like Qutub Residency Hotel, Ashoka Hotel, among others. With the wish to come back to Assam, he applied for management positions in tea companies located in Assam. In 1999, he got an opportunity to join Williamson Magor as a management trainee.
Dolly, on the other hand, pursued her Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in education from Duliajan College in Upper Assam. Upon finishing this course, she also pursued a Montessori course from the same college.
The duo worked and lived in different tea gardens across Assam. Ranjit gradually went up the ranks from trainee to Assistant Manager, Senior Assistant Manager, and finally the Deputy Manager. Dolly, on the other hand, taught in schools that were located within the tea gardens.
This was one of the essential learning phases for the duo as they acquired all the necessary know-how when it comes to processing tea.
“I started from zero, and whatever I know now was through on-the-job training. The characteristics of the tea plants, the manufacturing processes, how the plants are grown, and how to develop tea of good quality and flavour,” states Ranjit. Additionally, the duo also perfected their tea tasting skills and learnt how to distinguish the flavours of tea grown in different places.
After being aware of the difficulties that small growers faced, the duo decided to quit their life of comfort in October 2018 to embark on an unpredictable entrepreneurial journey. One thing that kept them going was their belief in their knowledge and the drive that they were working towards something that could benefit several farmers.
Ranjit also read up a lot about tea in journals and market research reports. He arrived at the understanding that adding value to tea ensured a better market value. Hence, this is when he decided to experiment with blends using herbs, fruits, flowers, and spices that would set them apart from the rest.
Thus, they onboarded about five small tea growers in their network and sourced 100 kgs of tea to make small batches of their blends.
“I wanted to see if our idea would work out. We experimented and launched about five different flavours – tulsi green tea, mint green tea, lemongrass ginger green tea, exotic green tea, and blooming tea,” recalls Ranjit.
To see how consumers and connoisseurs responded to their products, Ranjit participated at the Indian International Tea and Coffee Expo in November 2018. Seeing a positive response, he then also attended the World Tea and Coffee Expo held in Mumbai.
Luckily for him, a wellness aggregator firm Get A Life Fitness (GALF) happened to be at the Mumbai expo and liked their products a lot. This resulted in the CEO getting in touch with Ranjit, and finally, began selling the blended teas on their platform. In no time, Ranjith became a member of the Tea and Coffee Association (TCA) in Mumbai, an organisation that works for the upliftment of tea growers and vendors. Since then, there has been no looking back for Aromica Tea.
Brewing a Fresh Start as an Entrepreneur
Having interacted with people and organisations at different Expos, Ranjit returned to Assam and immersed himself in the operations.
He set up a 20ft X 12ft unit in the compound of his family home in Guwahati where the duo began blending and packaging the naturally grown tea. In May 2019, they added two more rooms to the existing unit and installed infrastructure like blending machines, the sealing machine, weighing scales, and dehydrator machine, among others.
“The tea leaves are processed in different ways by the growers to obtain these varieties. For example, the tea needs to be fermented for a certain time at a particular temperature before it is dried and rolled to achieve the yellow tea. While the green tea does not require any fermentation at all,” explains Ranjit. The white tea, on the other hand, is made from buds of the tea plants and is thirty times richer in antioxidants than green tea, informs Ranjit.
Once the growers pluck the leaves, they dry it at their homes and hand roll them at home after which Aromica Tea blends them in different flavours.
“Some of the interesting blends that we have developed include the blue pea tea using the blue pea flower, the fiery tea made using bhut jolokia (one of the hottest chillies in the world), Valentine tea which contains strawberry, rose petal, dark chocolate chips, blueberry among other ingredients,” states Ranjit.
The ingredients for value addition are sourced from over 50+ farmers. The peppermint, for example, is sourced from farmers in Uttarakhand while the spearmint is grown in the Southern parts of the country.
The idea here was to not only alleviate the taste but also work with ingredients that were traditionally known to improve health. Some of the teas were developed keeping health in mind which include Slim tea made using Garcinia Cambogia, commonly known as Malabar tamarind, stevia, and green tea. Another blend, the Vedic tea, is made using ashwagandha, cinnamon, pepper, cloves, green tea, among other ingredients blended to boost concentration.
They’ve also developed Tea sticks which are tea leaves enclosed in a pen-like structure. A third party vendor manufactures these sticks for Aromica Tea. One can dip this in hot water and drink it. A well-loved blend in this category includes chamomile, rose, and lemongrass tea.
With the growing popularity of the teas, the entrepreneurs went from selling solely through online channels to finally opening their outlet in August last year. They also appear in the shelves of over 20 departmental stores in Guwahati, while selling in Upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh through distributor channels.
They also opened a one of a kind tea cafe in Guwahati called, ‘Just Tea’ which has 60+ varieties of tea options to choose from.
Satisfying Customers While Empowering Tea Growers
Ranjit informs that they have not advertised their products in a big way, but social media platforms have been a boon for small businesses like them.
“The online platform is how our products have gotten visibility, and most of the repeat customers have discovered us through this channel,” informs Ranjit.
One such customer is Guwahati-based Barnali Sharma, an Associate Professor of History at Cotton University. She first came to know of them through a Facebook post.
It has been four months since Barnali tried the hot Bhut jolokia tea and she is a big fan now.
“As a professor, I am always so busy teaching and reading. The constant need to focus sometimes leaves me with nasty headaches. The fiery tea surprisingly provides instant relief and works wonders. The flavour is not spicy at all, and it clears your throat. I also ended up buying this blend and the blue pea blend for my niece and nephew because I loved their products so much,” says the 48-year-old.
In addition to happy customers, it is important to add that it is the small tea growers who have benefitted the most from engagement with Aromica Tea.
Take Dibrugarh-based tea grower Kaushik Gogoi for example who has been actively growing organic tea on half an acre of land since 2014. The tea grower has been working with the Aromica Tea for the past one year and supplies over 25 kgs of tea leaves every month.
“As small tea growers, our production capacity does not exceed more than 50 to 100 kgs per month. And the problem that we mostly face is that buyers from outside want to source large quantities, which is anywhere between 10,000 kgs to 15,000 kgs,” states Kaushik
Unable to meet the buyer’s demands, the small tea growers end up selling to local traders with very little power to negotiate. But, through the intervention of Aromica Tea, Kaushik mentions that there has been an improvement in the livelihoods of growers like him.
“They pay a genuine price, and this has helped me a lot. Outside India, there is a lot of demand for tea that we were unable to cater to, but now, I feel glad that my tea is probably being consumed by people from different parts of the country,” smiles Kaushik.
With all that Ranjit and Dolly have achieved through their brand, it would be unfair to assume that all of it came easy to them. Ranjit says that creating a niche for themselves in a market with over 52 selling brands is a challenge.
“This is why we need to innovate and work on our product development constantly. Luckily for us, our blends have been well received, and we frequently get repeat orders. These customers are the backbone of our business as they popularise our brand through word of mouth,” informs Ranjit.
Another challenge that they face as a small bootstrapped business is managing their funds and consistently maintaining high-quality standards for their products.
Happily, the duo’s hard work has been recognised by several platforms. In June 2019, Aromica Tea won the Times Business Award for the most premium tea brand in Assam. In February this year, the small business was selected to be mentored by IIM Calcutta, making them the first tea brand to be incubated by any IIM in India. In the same month, Startup Assam also went on to onboard them for incubation.
Ranjit looks forward to receiving mentorship, developing channels, and utilising the financial support to grow his brand. The entrepreneur also wants to motivate other small business wonders like him.
“If you have something in mind, just believe in the idea and trust that it can be executed. It is not easy, and you will be discouraged while very few will support. Listen to your heart and have trust in yourself. Challenges will emerge daily, and you may reach a state of rock bottom but remember that you can always bounce back,” he says.
So, what lies ahead for the Tea brand now?
Ranjit informs that currently, he is in talks with a horticulturist and university professor based out of Australia who is helping them develop overseas channels. He also wants to develop more blends and onboard more local tea growers to their network.
“I had a comfortable life in the tea gardens but left it all to promote small tea growers, and I feel happy that we can empower them. When we started, I would take my scooter and would visit departmental stores with the hope to see my brand on the shelves. We now hope to tap into newer markets and spread health, happiness, and smiles through our handcrafted tea made with passion and love,” he says, signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Ratan Tata
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Internet-based technologies
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
Ans: Honesty while doing business
*Your favourite book
Ans: I prefer reading news and journals more than books
*In my free time I ____…
Ans: Spend time researching on tea
* Before this interview I was ____…
Ans: We’ve developed some face marks recently. So, I was packaging that
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: How to make quick decisions that can have an impact on the business
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: Ask them about the family background so that I can hire people who really need the job
*Best advice you ever got is ____…
Ans: There’s always a way out
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)