Avantika Jalan, on Sustainable Management of her Family’s Tea Estate
Avantika Jalan and brother Mrityunjay, carry forward the family heritage of 600-hectare tea estates in Tinsukia district of Assam. They have been working hard to make the organic market for tea more mainstream.
Avantika spent her early childhood in Assam, where her family owns these tea estates. The family moved to Kolkata when she was three, but Avantika could never ever forget her roots. After completing her undergraduate from Carleton College, USA, she headed back to where it all started. She took the opportunity to build the family estate into a model sustainable system.
Starting-up Mana Organics, was it inspired by running a family business Chota Tingrai Tea Estate?
This tea estate was started by my great-grandfather, in 1943. Mana Organics is a venture based on my father’s work with Maikaal-BioRe and I decided to take it ahead. It was an organic cotton project that he had started in 1992 with farmers in Madhya Pradesh. The farmers had become self-sustainable using organic practices – and gone on to work with several other projects in their villages. I wanted to recreate that model in Chota Tingrai and show that organic and sustainable systems can work in tea. A 100 Ha of the plantation has been converted into organic.
What makes you different from your competitors?
Our dedication to sustainability, personal touch with the field and estate management, and a happy mix of experienced and young innovative team makes us stand apart from our competitors.
We are also one of the few tea companies with women in our core management team.
What is your core passion and long-term vision behind the business?
I’ve always been drawn to rural India. I worked with an NGO, Kalpvriksh as part of a scholarship grant through Carleton College, where I worked in tribal villages of the western ghats. I learnt the concept of sustainability here. It motivated me to pursue sustainability in the context of rural development and farming in India.
The long-term vision is to make Chota Tingrai the model tea estate and use it as an example to help other growers in the region achieve sustainability.
What are the market gaps you trying to address through this extended business?
We are trying to provide authentic organic Assam teas, which come from the socially responsible estate. Anyone wants to buy good quality teas, can directly contact us.
Any future plans?
I want to bring renewable resources to fulfil the estate’s energy needs, as well as develop a rainwater harvesting system in the estate.
I am also employing several women at the management level, we currently have 7 women who are in the management and over 500 women who work at the estate and factory.
What are the different types of tea in your store?
We produce Organic Black Orthodox teas, CTC teas, and Green teas. We have our retail products that also include tea bags.
What has been your most touching or amazing moment so far?
I think the most touching aspects so far has been watching my new management grow. When I hired them, they were completely new to tea and organic agriculture. Now, they are managing a 350 Ha garden, and are more conscious of organic management. One of our sections was not performing well, and I was on the verge of giving up on the section being organically managed, my team wasn’t willing to give in, and asked for one more chance to revive the section, and they did.
Do you face any struggles for sponsors to continue with your passion?
Yes, to get the management to invest in a new product or a new system for doing things in a more sustainable way is always a challenge. The long-term benefits vs. the short-term are always in play.
What were the initial days like – what kind of challenges you’ve faced and are still facing?
In the initial days, it was a lot of learning. I did not know the agricultural practices and tea practices. I had to understand the current systems – the problems, what works well, what does not. Switching the local management to organic was also not easy, as no one believed in it. I slowly started training people under the organic system and once they started seeing results, they became more confident that the system works.
The challenge I still face is convincing managers (non-organic / conventional managers) to spend resources to invest in the organic systems / sustainable systems.
What about acceptance in India, when it comes to changing a drinking habit? You know in most cases, people will choose wine over tea…
The bigger challenge is to be a brand competing with the other retail brands in India that are much bigger and have more brand awareness. Creating a market for high-quality organic teas has been a challenge, as most people want the regular chai, however, with Amazon and other online platforms opening up, we see a good market for our niche products as well.
What skills do you think is required, especially in your areas of expertise where every day you have to keep up the connection between urban and rural India?
I think the main skill is people management, to understand the limitations of all people working for you, and knowing when to push them, when to be gentle, and when to trust that a job will be done, vs. stepping in to take it into your own hands.
Regarding the urban-rural connect, it’s very important to understand both environments, the challenges and the advantages of each, and make the most of both the worlds. My personal expertise is in resource management for sustainable agricultural practices. It’s mostly applicable when I’m in the field, but the same basic principles apply in urban management environments as well.
Amidst the digital boom in India, how does your venture fit the picture?
We are definitely a part of this digital boom. We have an active social media presence, and have recently started our e-commerce business. Moreover, we are using unconventional forms of communication for our daily communication and our young team at the field level is very well-connected to the world and our city office.
Healthy tips for tea lovers…
Drinking tea is the best way to start the day, however, strong black teas can be hard on an empty stomach; don’t forget to have a little snack with it.
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