By Alice Feiring, Newsweek
To transform the parched, arid Bangladeshi soil into a lush organic tea garden took dung. Tons of it. How to acquire the massive amounts needed was the sticky problem facing Kazi Anis Ahmed, the 41-year-old cofounder and president of Teatulia. After all, it was not exactly part of the doctoral thesis in comparative literature that he had completed at New York University.
The story of Teatulia, the only organic tea garden in Bangladesh, started in 2000. Ahmed’s father, Kazi Shahid, was preparing for his three sons to join the family business Gemcon Group, which at the time was focused on media and construction. It was Kazi Shahid who came up with the idea of expanding into tea in the northwest of the country, a mere 97 kilometers from India’s famed Darjeeling tea region. The little-known fact is that Bangladesh is one of the world’s 10 largest tea-growing locations. But with no international reputation, all the tea is consumed within the country’s borders—and almost all the tea is grown in the east.
Ahmed loved the concept, though when he moved home after graduate school to run the company in 2004, his caveat was that the farming had to be organic. “At the time we started the garden,” he says, “no one took organic seriously. They said it was impossible. The traditional tea experts of Bangladesh told us tea in the northwest would not be quality.”
Still, the family only needed to produce adequate tea, as their major mission was to provide jobs to the region. They were convinced they could make it work. Purchasing 1,215 hectares of desert-like land in Tetulia (the tea’s name is a nod to the region), on the wrong side of the country for tea, where annual income per family is a mere $800 and there is a constant threat of seasonal famine, they started the Kazi & Kazi Tea Estate. They circumvented the lack of regional tea expertise by bringing in consultants to train staff and farmers, with an eye toward self-reliance.
The lack of agricultural tradition proved a blessing because the land was virginal, not ravaged by the government-supported, synthetic fertilizer-dominated “Green Revolution.” After reading the poetic One Straw Revolution by the master Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, Ahmed went one step beyond organic and tried to do low-intervention farming. The tea garden functions on minimal irrigation. They installed a plethora of plants next to the tea plants to feed and aerate the soil. What now exists is a breathtaking vision. The barren area has been transformed into an Eden with a resurgence of wildlife never seen before—recently, a pair of monkeys was spotted. The animals had not been seen in the area for decades.
“The garden, which supplies 100 percent of the tea and infusion production, has over 250 kinds of plants, many rare, and all indigenous,” Ahmed explains. All are planted for their usefulness—the neem double as shade trees and natural pesticides, for instance, and are made into medicinal teas. Ginger, peppermint, and lemongrass are cultivated for the herbal infusions.
The main ingredient needed for this metamorphosis was cow poop: 200 metric tons a month of it. So they needed quite a few cows. And that’s where the story of Teatulia’s transformation gets even more interesting.
Initially, the estate cared for its own bovines. But as each year brought another 40.5 hectares into production, the herd swelled to 600 animals. The situation became overbearing. “We didn’t want to be a dairy—that wasn’t where our expertise was,” Ahmed says.
In addition to cows, the family also nurtured the community. Already established at the tea estate were centers for language and computer literary, parks for kids. “As nice as all of this was to do,” Ahmed says, “here was an opportunity to engage in a deeper way.”
“I always believed that enterprise, not charity, was the real driver of growth. I had this continuous thought, that if we could solve the problems of the land, of the fertilizer, we could solve the problems for many people.”
The solution Ahmed came up with: to let the neighboring villagers care for the cows. In 2005 they formed a cow co-op. The plan was to let it be run by the women. The estate would loan them an animal. In two years, after one liter of milk and a certain amount of cow dung a day, the members paid back their debt and were free to use whatever revenue was generated by the cow for themselves. “Almost 99 percent of the members have re-enrolled to take more cows. Some are on their third or fourth cow,” Ahmed says.
As it turns out, a cow in rural Bangladesh can change a life. With around 1,400 cows to date, and with the area looking forward to 3,000 in the next two years, many futures have been impacted. Families have pulled themselves out of poverty. It is reported that a woman named Fahima has even managed to use the revenue from cows to outfit her dirt-floored hut with real floors, solar power, a good kitchen, and plumbing. Her brood has grown to four cows; her husband quit his job and went to work for her.
Teatulia’s success was laudable, but its next challenge was to sell the tea outside of Bangladesh. The company took the traditional route of going to tea fairs. “So we thought, now we had great tea, single garden, organic. Everyone would want it. But then we couldn’t sell the damn thing,” Ahmed says. They were offered about $2 a kilo—half of the rate for organic teas grown elsewhere. “We could not have broken even, let alone made any profit.”
The family hadn’t worked so hard just to admit defeat. And the tea was more than just adequate—it turned out to be quite good. “In Darjeeling, the tea is delicate. Here in Tetulia, the leaf gives a more robust taste,” Ahmed says. The family decided to take their tea on the road. Their first success was at Harrod’s in London. Based on that confidence-booster, they then approached the American market.
In 2009, with American co-founder and CEO Linda Appel Lipsius, the tea for the American market was christened Teatulia, after its homeland. Lipsius helped to arrange the organic packaging from top to bottom, including corn silk bags and water-based ink for the packaging. (“People are even more intimidated by tea than wine,” Lipsius says.)
Lipsius has cracked into 100 Whole Foods nationwide, as well as many high-end spas and restaurants. The strong flavors also attracted some mixologists, like the ones at New York City’s Rouge Tomate. The taste is as compelling as the story, and U.S. sales have doubled every year. “We expect 2012 United States sales at 2.5 million. With a very premium product, 16 tea bags for $9.99—in this economy, that’s not bad,” says Lipsius.
The family is just now accelerating, taking the tea global—next stop Japan and the Mideast. But the main work at home continues against adversity. Just this past March, the estate was attacked by hundreds of land-grabbers, looking to pirate the sedimentary stone beneath the garden. Two hectares of tea plants were damaged, bones were broken, and a handful of people were jailed.
Still, despite the challenges, Ahmed prefers to concentrate on the future. “I’ve heard that two other tea companies are now planning to go organic. Some have started to farm organic vegetables. Today, organic—once a puzzling new term for most in Bangladesh—is well understood.”