The Tea Entrepreneur: An Interview with Bala Sarda, Founder, Vahdam Teas, Darjeeling

In conversation with Bala Sarda, Founder, Vahdam Teas, Darjeeling, who speaks about the scope of Tea Tourism in India and about the various initiatives that ensure better returns for the tea planters

Darjeeling has always been known to travellers for its beautiful old-world charm, the historic toy train and its British heritage. However, what remain under-explored are the town’s vast stretches of tea gardens, meandering through Darjeeling like colours splattered on a canvas. It’s something of a unique experience, an enlivening one, to wake up in the beautiful plantation bungalows amidst the constant fold of Nature in its full glory. Today’s Traveller recently caught up with Bala Sarda, Founder, Vahdam Teas, Darjeeling, who spoke at length on various steps for increasing Tea Tourism in India and how his company ensures better lives for tea planters.

Q. What are your earliest memories of travelling and exploring the world? My earliest memories of holidays are travelling to tea estates in Darjeeling and staying at the Manager’s bungalow, waking up to the fresh aroma of tea leaves around and mist in the air.

Q. How do you see Tea Tourism evolve over the years in Darjeeling and what steps do you suggest so that more visitors come to the area for this purpose? In the British era, Darjeeling was one of the favourite summer retreats for the officers. With a quaint colonial charm and endless green stretches of lush tea plantations, Darjeeling has a great reputation of being a fantastic tourist destination. In the last few decades, an increasing number of tea estates have opened their palatial manager bungalows as homestays. It is undoubtedly a prized experience waking up in a picturesque, sprawling tea plantation. You can start your day with the finest and freshest cup of tea, take a walk through the garden and learn more about the art of plucking tea leaves and how it is processed further. Nowadays, estates have also started to add varied experiences like nature trails, horse riding, a local visit, a cultural evening, amongst other things.

India is blessed with some fascinating tea gardens and the only suggestion I can offer is that the Tea Board and our Tourism Department at the Centre can put in more efforts to promote and speak of Tea Tourism in a new light. Let’s promote and advertise Tea Tourism the way we promote our monuments, our history, our food! The state governments can also invest in more subsidised accommodation for tourists as not everyone can afford a luxury stay in the tea estates. In addition to this, we need more options for connectivity with dedicated buses, advanced open deck cable cars for fascinating aerial views, dedicated rail tours to plantations etc.

Q. Which are the top 5 tea estates in Darjeeling that are known for Tea Tourism and Why? Glenburn Tea Estate: This is a personal favourite with the elevation ranging from 800 ft. to 32,000 ft. The plantation is blessed with two lively rivers and a forest as well. The views are breathtaking and the bungalow offers a luxury stay! Will and Faye, the hosts, are well-known for their warm hospitality. Makaibari Tea Estate & Homestay: Run and managed by the genius of a man, Rajah Banerjee, Makaibari Tea Estate has a prized reputation in heritage teas and also offers a very comfortable, mid-range accommodation in stone cottages with a friendly staff at your service. These are two absolute favourites, but you can also enjoy a great stay at Goomtee Tea Estate & Retreat, Selim Hill Tea Estate & Retreat, and Ging Tea House in Darjeeling.

Q. What prompted you to start Vahdam Teas? Tell us a bit about the legacy you have inherited. I am the 4th generation Tea entrepreneur in my family and have a legacy of more than 80 years in the Indian Tea Industry. With my forefathers being pioneers in the Indian Tea Industry, my family has been in the business of bulk tea export. Whilst being in college, I had established two successful ventures. But after graduation, I wanted to give some serious thought on what I wanted to do in my life. This led me to spend a few months in solitude at my family’s residence in Darjeeling. Having been surrounded by the fascinating ‘World of Tea’ since a young age, I spent some time in my family’s bulk export business. This gave me the prized opportunity to learn more about our Tea Industry, the art of cultivating tea, and the nitty-gritty of the supply chain. While doing so, I found some major loopholes in our traditional supply chain of tea. One of the major loopholes that I came across was – the absence of a home-grown brand, resulting in no real value addition back here in India. Since the Indian Tea Industry is forced to depend on major exports to foreign brands, they do not hesitate to shift to inferior quality teas from elsewhere as and when farmers back here demand a deserving price. This is done to earn price points and hefty profits, leaving meagre wages and an uncertain future for the tea planters here in India. This is where Vahdam Teas brings the difference to the lives of the tea planters. In Vahdam’s supply chain, there is no involvement of unnecessary middlemen and it makes gardenfresh tea available to the customers in the least possible time. Not only does this help in retaining profits in the region where these divine teas are grown and nurtured by the planters, but also strengthens the industry itself.

Q. Tell us about the TEAch Me initiative of Vahdam teas and the idea behind this endeavour. At a micro-level, we wanted to work on two core areas – ‘Education’ and ‘Health’. Under our first social initiative, TEAch Me, 1 per cent of our revenue is directed towards funding the education of our tea planters’ children. Under the first chapter of this initiative, we have covered 64 children at a small tea estate in Darjeeling. TEAch Me is designed with a proper structure of monitoring the impact of the programme and to empower the children with allied vocational courses on reproductive health, hygiene, family planning, banking etc. We are in the midst of replicating the initiative across a few other tea estates in India too.

Q. Give us some details about Vahdam? Vahdam Teas are shipped to over 90+ countries across the globe and have shipped over 100 million+ cups. The key markets for us are India, the USA and Europe. All our teas are procured directly from plantations and tea planters within hours of harvest, they are packaged garden fresh at our state-of-the-art tea facility in Delhi, and then shipped directly to our own fulfilment centres in various parts of the world. Also, along with a ‘Date of Packaging’, most of our teas come with a ‘Date of Picking/Harvest’ which is a true indicator of a tea’s origin and freshness. There is a big difference between when your tea is Harvested and when it is Packaged.

In the next few years, we plan to work aggressively towards expanding our reach across all major global markets. At present, our major revenue markets are the USA, the UK, Europe and India. Currently, the brand has two global fulfilment centres in the USA. In future, we plan to direct our efforts, finances and marketing strategies towards acquiring more global infrastructure to better structure our logistics, which can significantly bring down shipping costs whilst providing a better customer experience. In addition to this, we will also be working towards our current plans of refining our customer acquisition, expanding the realm of our social outreach programme while also moving towards other verticals like ‘Health’ for our future initiatives. We are also currently working towards introducing new product variants with our focus on wellness blends. It is safe to say that in the next 3 years, we envision to be one of the top-selling tea brands in the industry.