Leaves used to make world’s best brew are now too long and hard to pick
Coronavirus lockdowns in India and Kenya are threatening global tea supplies, with traders racing to secure stocks.
In India, which is in the midst of a three-week shutdown to stop the virus spreading, production in the top growing regions of Assam and Darjeeling has ground to a halt just as the plucking season was due to begin.
The first flush in Darjeeling, one of the world’s most prized brews known as the “champagne” of tea, has already been lost, planters said. The leaves, which command a premium globally for their delicate flavour, are now too long and hard to harvest.
Even if the lockdown ends on April 14 as scheduled — officials have indicated it may continue longer — planters said it would take weeks to get the bushes ready again, which could threaten the next round of plucking.
“We’ll lose a huge amount of crop,” said Prabhat Bezboruah, a grower in Assam and chairman of India’s Tea Board. “Many gardens are in deep trouble.”
In African producers such as Kenya, the flow of tea from plantations into ports and beyond has been disrupted, according to Ibi Idoniboye, an analyst at commodities data firm Mintec.
Kenya this week entered its own 21-day partial lockdown, which includes the port city Mombasa, a large tea shipping hub.
Curfews in Sri Lanka temporarily stopped production though it has since restarted. Trade has also been disrupted in China, the world’s largest tea producer.
When India announced the lockdown it indicated that tea production would be designated an essential service and exempt. But local authorities in Assam and Darjeeling failed to grant the necessary permissions to keep the gardens open.
“The Darjeeling first flush is gone, and if we don’t open up soon the second flush will be gone,” said Vivek Goenka, president of Warren Tea and chairman of the Indian Tea Association.
Mr Idoniboye expects supplies internationally to tighten over the next three to six months, with India losing around 150,000 tonnes of tea, or 10 per cent of its production.
Concern over supply has prompted traders to increase orders to pre-empt any further disruption. “We’ve been working very hard to secure the tea,” said one UK-based tea trader. “People have been shipping out as much as they can over the last three weeks.”
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Tea was one of the products that shoppers rushed to buy before the lockdown. In the week to March 21, tea sales in the UK rose 55 per cent from the same time last year, according to Nielsen, the consumer data group.
Before the crisis hit, the tea industry had been suffering a bout of oversupply that had depressed prices globally. Export prices for leading producers Kenya, India and Sri Lanka fell to 11-year lows in March.
Low prices had already left growers in India, which was struggling through an economic slowdown and credit crunch, in a precarious state. One of the country’s largest tea companies defaulted last year and tea growers now worry that the lack of income could prove fatal.
“If it was not coming at the back of two successive terrible years, I think we would have been able to mitigate it,” said Nazrana Ahmed, a tea planter in Assam. “But now it’s absolutely back-breaking.”