An Entrepreneur's only Cup of Tea
For thirty years, Uday Chapagain has been doing what he does best, running a tea business.
The first thing he asks when you visit him is the type of tea you want. “Green, white or herbal, what would you prefer?”If you look confused, he makes the choice for you. “Let’s have white tea then, I’m sure you haven’t tried it before,” says the man who has been in the tea business for over three decades.
It all started when Uday Chapagain travelled to Germany in the 1980s. His plan was to sell leather upper for shoes; but it unraveled within two months as he found out that leather from Nepal was not up to German standards. In his search for a Nepali product that could be sold in the European economic powerhouse, the young businessman found tea to be the commodity with the most potential.
But Chapagain knew that there were many a slip twixt cup and lip. The early days of his tea business were not free of setbacks, both big and small. “I used to package the tea and deliver it to shops myself,” he recollects. During India’s economic blockade against Nepal in 1990, his goods were stranded in India. Similarly, there was a time when 3kg of his tea, sent to Japan, went to waste as he was denied a visa to participate in an event.
All this could not prevent the businessman from marching forward. After a few years in the business, he imported the first tea bag-producing machine in the country. “If you don’t try to swim thinking that you may drown, you will never learn to swim,” says Chapagain, who is now the chairman of Gorkha Tea Estate, the first private organic tea estate in the country.
“As we are located in between two of the biggest tea consumers in the world, we can benefit a lot from growing tea locally,” he says.
Seeing the potential of tea farming in Nepal, Chapagain setup the first organic private tea estate in Ilam. He also bought leaves from nearby farms owned by local families. In a few years, the small farm grew to be 600 ropanis, with a capacity to produce 150 tons of tea a year.
There are 1,500 farmers, who are part of cooperative groups, involved in his company. Most of the tea leaves come from small farms across Sunderpani. Around half of the total tea produced is exported to Germany under the ‘Sunderpani’ brand.
“Currently, my focus is on developing packaging, strategizing our entry into new markets such as the US and developing a tea culture in Nepal,” he says.
“Tea production can be of benefit for the country in many ways. In addition to the health benefits and economic prospects, it also helps the country earn carbon credits,” says Chapagain. Nepal’s climate is well-suited for high quality tea. Even barren land in the hills can be used. “At the same time, since the mother plant for different kinds of tea is the same — only the process of plucking and manufacturing is different — one can get varieties of tea from the same farm.”
Providing biogas to farmers and offering prices, sometimes double the market value, he is making an effort to help the farming community around his estate.
Despite the success, Chapagain isn’t in a mood to venture into other businesses. “I believe that life is a journey and traveling with more luggage than necessary makes it less enjoyable,” he says. “Instead I focus on taking the tea industry to the next level. Although Nepali tea is slowly getting popular abroad, the domestic market is yet to embrace it.”
And this is what he wants to change. As president of Himalayan Orthodox Tea Producers’ Association (HOTPA), he is working to make Nepali tea more popular in the local market. Tea companies are already targeting the expat community, but a lot needs to be done for the local community. “Tea is important to culture, and I want to see it develop here.”