Wednesday August 12, 2009 | 7 comments
Constructed in 1999, Shangri-la was the vision of three brothers. Laxmi, Kamal, and Ram Mainali were born into tea. As young boys in eastern Nepal, they delighted in the family passion for tea – especially that of their grandfather. Home on occasion from his work in the tea gardens of Assam, he would bring high-quality leaf to share with his grandsons. Making tea was a memorable event. As Laxmi (L. P.) Mainali recalls, “the aroma filled not only the house, but also the neighborhood.”
As the boys grew into young men, they left the eastern hills to pursue careers elsewhere in the region. L. P. Mainali decided that tea suited him, and took up life as a factory manager and professional tea taster. It was his expertise that would serve as the foundation of the brothers’ vision.
Shangri-la lies more than 10 miles from the small town of Ilam in a place so remote that no connection to the electrical grid existed when the factory was first envisioned. Anyone who has seen a tea factory in operation knows how daunting a prospect this must have been – the key stages of leaf withering, rolling, and drying rely heavily on electricity. Losing power in the middle of production could spell disaster. As if this were not enough, the Mainalis had to carefully deal with a politically sensitive situation, as they built and grew during the heavy activity of the Maoist insurgency. The wise navigation of such challenges has defined the ongoing success of the operation. And, of course, the tea is delicious.
Standing in the 1980s and looking forward, one would have thought Shangri-la an impossible vision. At the time, the Nepali government controlled the tea industry, and cultivation and production suffered from poor quality and the inefficient allocation of knowledge and resources. About 15 years ago, this began to change as the government embraced new policy. Factories were privatized and reorganized by experts; small farmers began to specialize in growing high-quality leaf. A re-energized industry emerged onto the international tea scene.
Even with a beautiful factory and three decades of tea expertise, the Mainalis still required that precious commodity beloved by all tea artisans: premium green leaf. And so they set about engaging the local farmer community, convincing their fellow Nepalis to make the agricultural commitments that would result in long-term success. This was far from simple, but today Shangri-la boasts a supply network of 637 small stakeholders.
Shangri-la has invested heavily in sustainability, in practice and philosophy. Committed to total conversion to organic production, they provide on-going training to small farmers on subjects ranging from organic fertilizer production to plant propagation. Shangri-la was the first Nepali tea factory to be granted Code of Conduct certification, a reflection of their commitment to the welfare of community members. An astonishing 60% of Shangri-la employees are women, a reality that has had a profound impact on the local economy. The Mainalis see the big picture – and this is why they pay above-market premiums to organic green leaf farmers and wages well above the minimum to factory employees. In doing so, they create strong incentives for positive change.
With so much good news, it is easy to forget about the challenges that lie ahead. Echoing the concerns of fellow Nepali tea producer, Bachan Gyawali, of Jun Chiyabari, L. P. Mainali notes that “Nepali tea has not been able to gain a respectable position in the international market due to poor marketing strategies and lack of [investment].” While greater market awareness is undoubtedly a key to the future success of Nepali tea, it is difficult to envision just exactly how such awareness will materialize. In this commercial world of ours, surely room remains for a few great stories, a few authentic journeys not lost in the fog of green marketing. And here you have one.
Many thanks to L. P. Mainali for permission to use the photos.