Ashoka alumnus revives family’s historic tea garden through unique subscription model
Sparsh Agarwal, a student from Ashoka University's undergraduate batch of 2019, is revitalising his family’s Darjeeling tea garden through his venture Dorje Teas, which sells a year's worth of seasonal harvests in a farm-fresh organic fashion.
The city of Darjeeling is globally renowned for its lush plantations, and unique tea flavours. However, this international distinction and export domination can often come with a hefty price tag. In this interview, I interviewed Sparsh Agarwal, an undergraduate student from Ashoka University's batch of 2019, about his family’s decades-old tea estate, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their business, and the new business venture that bloomed in these waters.
1. Why did you start this business?
My family has been in the Darjeeling tea garden business for the past four generations. My great-grandfather was the one who acquired the first tea garden in the late 1960s, much before the huge capital started moving into the area in the ‘80s. For the last decade, however, the tea garden trade, especially in Darjeeling, has been undergoing numerous problems. Production has been going down, and the harvest period has been reducing because of the changing windfall and rainfall patterns. The export market--Darjeeling tea is mostly sold in the export market--has also become uncertain. Plus, socio-political turmoil has already been there since 2017. Consequently, most of the 87 gardens in Darjeeling have not been able to make a profit in the last 20 to 30 years. And, then in March 2020, when I was home and writing my dissertation, the pandemic hit; and that really just devastated us and the garden. The lockdown took place during Darjeeling’s two most valuable harvest seasons - the first flush (spring) and second flush (summer). So, we were not making any profits, barely breaking even (actually making losses!), and then the lockdown came and hit us; and it was just the last nail in the coffin. Somewhere around April then, while we were still in the middle of the lockdown, my family started considering selling off the tea estate all together.
Now, my friends and I have always been very close to this garden. We used to often travel within the garden and spend our holidays there; plus, we are also quite familiar with the local community. Around May, I was talking to them about the estate’s problems; and how we were thinking of selling it off. It was them, then, who urged me to abstain and consider reviving it. One thing led to another, and a number of my friends started getting involved in different ways--some with the venture, some with the Selim Hill Collective. My partner in this venture is Ishaan Kanoria, a student from the University of Bocconi in Milan. Another friend, from Ashoka University, Vardhan Shah was also involved for a long period with the venture.
2. What is Dorje Teas? Tell me something that sets Dorje Teas apart from other tea businesses?
Dorje started off as an initiative to help revive my family’s estate. But, once we realised that we have found a commercially sustainable model, Rajah [Banerjee, a tea estate owner who pioneered the organic movement in Darjeeling] pushed us--he said that we need to also think about the more holistic rejuvenation of the surrounding areas. As a result, Dorje takes care primarily of the commercial revival of the garden through the subscription model; and Dorje has partnered with the Selim Hill Collective (another entity that we have created) to work on the more holistic rejuvenation of the tea garden. Dorje then gets the money by selling the tea; and we channel that money towards initiatives focused on community building, community welfare, wildlife conservation, and spreading awareness about Darjeeling.
What really separates Dorje from other tea businesses is that, for starters, no other tea garden owner stays at their own tea estate. Rajah was the last one who used to do that. Secondly, we are trying to bypass all possible middlemen to provide farm fresh organic teas. All of the new age tea brands that are coming up, they all say that they are removing middlemen. But, essentially they have just replaced middlemen because, now, instead of selling to auction houses we have to sell to these trade houses. The third thing is that, unlike other tea gardens, we also market and sell the monsoon and autumn flush; in attempts to solve the profitability problem of the gardens. Fourthly, even though there are other companies which have subscription models, no one has a subscription model like ours where we are providing all four different flushes through the year in a farm-fresh organic fashion. We also have two different subscriptions that we run. One is obviously for the traditional Black Tea that Darjeeling is famous for. The other one is also quite unique: it is for Green Tea-- the idea being that we provide the freshest possible green teas every 3 months to our customers. And finally, I feel that because of the partnership that Dorje has with the Selim Hill Collective, our aim is to have a radical reimagination of the space of the tea estate, to move away from the model of a commercially exploitable plantation towards that of a more just and inclusive garden. Dorje is hence, not just a commercial venture. It is a project directed towards creating a more sustainable and just reality for the community and the tea estate. So, a lot of the stuff that we are doing has a very strong eye towards the community. For instance, we have a webinar series called ‘Echoes’, which both spreads awareness about Darjeeling, and creates spaces to have meaningful conversations about what can be done within the estate, by speaking to people who have that knowledge and expertise.
Also, here is something exciting: after we came up with a sustainable subscription model for Dorje, we approached a number of venture capital funds to acquire some funding. So, I have not made this public yet, but I guess Ashoka would be the right platform to make it public: we were able to raise seed funding from Brand Capital, which is the venture capital arm of the Times group. The amount is an undisclosed amount but it is quite a huge sum that we have now been able to raise; so we recently finalised that deal. This would hopefully be able to help us sell enough packages to hit our target, which is to be able to get fifty thousand (50,000) subscribers; because unless we get fifty thousand subscribers, our model is not sustainable--due to the discount that we are providing.
3. You talked about your unique subscription model. Tell me more about that?
Darjeeling faces a unique problem: it is the only place in the entire world where tea is grown in four (4) seasonal harvests. This is done because as the season changes, the climate takes a large shift; and this change in climatic conditions from spring to summer to monsoon to winter affects the bushes in such a way that the aroma of the tea and the flavour profile also completely change. Now, the issue is that, within the Darjeeling tea trade the owners themselves have publicly proclaimed that only the first and second flush teas are worth selling, while the monsoon and autumn flush teas are horrible--and this hierarchy has led to the doom of the Darjeeling tea business.
What we [Dorje] believe, however, is that each of these teas have their own unique flavour, their unique story; and we need to capture and market that.
So, we started researching quite a bit. Eventually, we came up with a subscription system based upon the already existing subscription models of British wine retailer Tony Laithwaite, and a German entrepreneurship professor, Professor Faltin.
In our subscription system, we sell 250gm (which makes 100 cups) of whichever seasonal flush is being produced at the moment of the customer’s purchase; and every three months, we send the new seasonal harvested production to their house. This way, over the course of one year, they get to taste all four seasonal flush teas. Plus, we were clear right from the beginning that we want to make Darjeeling tea very affordable. So, the subscription system essentially provides a twofold advantage: For the garden, it guarantees that their monsoon and autumn flush tea get sold, which they are not able to sell right now. Plus, the customer gets the advantage of procuring the famous but extremely expensive Darjeeling tea (which usually gets sold at 5000 rupees per kg) at a heavily reduced cost. In our model, we sell all four flushes through the year at 2,100 rupees per kg. That is why we feel that this is a very valuable proposition for the customer as well. Our broader primary aim is to create a mass-market grocery brand where people can taste and drink Darjeeling tea every day. Right now, they cannot drink it because of how expensive it is. By making it an affordable, farm-fresh organic product, we want to take it to their homes. We believe that the subscription model is the only possible way to do that--for both the customer to afford it, and for the tea garden to remain sustainable.
4. Could you describe the business model?
The business model is very simple: we intimately work with one tea garden (my family’s), buy the produce in bulk from them, and then sell it via the subscription system, thereby averaging out the price. I should clarify: the venture Dorje is completely separate from my family’s garden business. Unlike the garden which has multiple stakeholders, Dorje belongs completely to Ishaan and me. We have a partnership with the garden in which we are trying to sell their entire produce; and, unlike other new age tea companies, which buy small quantities from a large number of gardens, , our cost of production reduces exponentially. Plus, because we are promising to sell the third and fourth flush; it goes down further. Of the 2100 rupees that we get then, a portion goes to the tea garden to cover its cost and give them a just price. The rest is used to keep Dorje financially sustainable, and to sustain the activities of the Selim Hill Collective.
5. How has your experience of being an Ashoka student impacted the way you run your business?
To be very honest, I would go to the extent of saying that the moral and intellectual fabric of who I am has a very deep imprint of Ashoka University, its red brick walls, and all the various professors and colleagues and students and friends that I met at Ashoka. A tea garden is more than just a monoculture of tea; it has a lot of different aspects to it. You have to think about the local community, the environment, the economy, the politics, the society, the marketing as well, and also be cognisant of our position in the globalised world that we live in. So, in many ways, without Ashoka’s interdisciplinary liberal arts approach--it would have been very difficult for me to truly grasp the nuances of all these elements within the tea garden. I simply would not have had the normative framework--Professor Khan used to use this phrase, “normative framework” quite a bit-- to think about the overlaps between commerce, the environment, and the socio-political problems of the region.
I would also say that I am a very proud student not just of Ashoka, but also of the Political Science department; especially because I would never have thought when I was there that studying Political Science and IR and History would teach me how to run a venture. But, now I am realising just how important a political science education is to running this [kind of a venture] because you have such a wide range of courses, and they all teach you so much! For instance: There is this one book that was recommended to me by a bunch of different professors; and ultimately, I read it. It’s called The Leopard by Lampedusa, this Italian author. It’s about the landing of Garibaldi in the 1860s; and the leopard is the protagonist, and he has this one really famous line: “If things are to remain the same, everything will have to change.” That line was something that kept coming back to me when we were trying to revive the garden. In many ways, it captures the foundational idea of this venture, and what we are hoping to achieve with it.
So, really, I would actually thank all my professors for providing me with the foundation to be able to think about creating a venture like this.
6. What do you think has been the impact of Dorje Teas on Darjeeling’s tea industry as a whole?
Very minimal. We have just launched two and a half months ago; and we really cannot expect to change everything overnight. But, we have been able to garner quite a lot of attention because of our webinar series. There are people from the Darjeeling tea industry who have been tuning into our talks, and engaging with these conversations. As of now, the impact has been very minimal in the larger Darjeeling region. Within Selim Hill, however, it is very strong; when we launched, we brought together the entire community. With regards to Darjeeling: we would only be really successful in significantly impacting the region once we are able to hit 50,000 customers. Plus, only then would people actually want to replicate Dorje’s model.
7. Tell us about yourself. What have you been up to, besides running Dorje Teas, since graduating?
I graduated last May. I started working at the Centre for Policy Research, where I was the research associate/executive assistant to Yamini Aiyar, the president of CPR. We were researching Indian healthcare policy and pandemic policy. On the side, I was also working on creating Dorje. In January, we launched the Selim Hill Collective. Three months ago, we launched Dorje.
I had also gotten into Oxford [University] last year in March; I have an open deferral. At some point, I am hoping to be able to go there to pursue my higher education in international relations because once Dorje has taken off, I do want to be able to get a little bit back into academia as well.
8. Any favourite moments you would like to share about Selim Hill?
Over the course of the last year, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the garden itself. Recently, Professor Neelanjan Sircar had come to visit us. We went on a hike into the Selim Hill forest (which is the non-cultivated part). Right about the end of that hike, we saw an entire family of hornbills! That was magical. (On our Instagram and other social profiles, our idea is to provide a window for people into life at the tea estate, and share with them moments like these.) Another day, I went for a run within the garden and encountered a barking deer on the path. That was also quite special. And, just last month, we spotted two snakes within the compound of the house itself! It is honestly quite good to see that the biodiversity is thriving within the garden. I think that that is the greatest proof that the garden is fully organic. It is also a sign that things will get better.
Interviewed by Anushka Bidani, undergraduate student of English & Creative Writing)