Vangedi Pekoe, priced at over $750 per kg on a highly acclaimed US based tea website is an interesting tea that claims to be made by the pluckers themselves on an organic farm cum estate in the foothills of a famous tea growing region in Sri Lanka.
Is this the consumer shift to ethical and sustainable tea – a scenario for boutique teas in the Tea 2030 report? Kudos to the creative mind that developed the idea. But, does it play to the stereotype of an impoverished and exploited workforce and environmental degradation?
Could be true of other large tea producing nations. Sri Lanka though, is ahead in improved living conditions, wages, collective bargaining, health services and educational opportunities for its plantation workers. For over 30 years a statutory body representing Trade Unions, Government and Plantation companies, the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT), has been actively uplifting living standards and welfare .
Vangedi is the Sri Lankan term for the mortar and pestle used for pounding rice grain into flour. Though replaced by modern inventions such as the electric grinder, it still survives even in elite residential zones of Colombo, where rhythmic pounding in the wee hours of the morning serves to wake up unfortunate neighbours and remind them that some people like their string hopper breakfast made the traditional way!
Vangedi is an unusual tea metaphor. The Pekoe grade is a highly prized tea epitomised by a curly leaf style, light cup and a delicate taste: linking this tea manufacture to kitchen implements such as the vangedi and ‘kulla’ (traditional winnowing basket used to separate chaff from rice) and bare handed rolling more reminiscent of spicy coconut sambol (a favourite side dish for stringhoppers) would surely be anathema to James Taylor and the British tea planters who pioneered the process of artisanal orthodox tea manufacturing that has made Pure Ceylon tea the most famous and sought after tea in the world.
Vangedi Pekoe portrays a stereotype past its sell by date, with the intent to tug at the heartstrings and loosen the purse strings of Green Consumers. But, why would workers on large plantations who get a monthly quota of free tea ,steal green leaf?. Possible that smallholdings cannot guard their crops from lightfingered villagers, but, if tea is freely available, and cheap, would this laborious process be driven by commercial reasons rather than poverty?.
Vangedi Pekoe shows how the power of storytelling can create and position brands. It appeals to Green Consumers, framing the brand as a champion of environmental sustainability and worker empowerment. This is a lesson in consumer segmentation and creativity that marketers in the Sri Lankan tea industry are yet to attempt. They are content to stay in the safe realm of exporting packaged tea and leaving it to the importer or distributor to create the brand and the story. The downside is that value is then realised by distribution channels, not producers. The industry and country both lose.
Vangedi Pekoe demonstrates this point well. It is priced online at $ 754.66 per Kg. A kilogram of mid grown Pekoe of good pedigree currently fetches $ 4.23 at the Colombo Tea Auction. You do the math. The brand owner says in the online video that 10% of income would be distributed amongst the pluckers. That’s $ 75 per Kg if based on what the US consumer would pay. 1,600 times the price well pedigreed Pekoes would fetch at the CTA.
The creators of Vangedi Pekoe know that sustainable production, ethical manufacturing go beyond the traditions that built Ceylon Tea; to increase share of wallet from enlightened consumers. Sri Lanka has a good story to tell on ozone friendly sustainability, ethical and artisanal tea. Time for tea industry brand marketers to step up and ensure this story is heard by the right consumer; not hijacked by itinerant storytellers to exploit the Good Market.