Why have Estonians and a Lithuanian moved to Georgia to grow tea?

11 Jun 2018

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By Mariam Papidze

Economic Editor

Agenda.ge,11 Jun 2018 Tbilisi,Georgia


Four Estonians and a Lithuanian left their corporate careers behind and have come to Georgia to start growing tea.

The tea enthusiasts plan to get an initial test batch of tea already this year and aim to sell their tea to Europe and North America. The entrepreneurs also wish to help bring a little life back to the villages that once bloomed thanks to the tea industry.

If all goes according to plan, then in four years the Renegade Tea Estate, the brand created by the Estonians and Lithuanian, plans to offer work to 300 people during the season.

The word renegade in the brand’s name means rebels, people who think differently. In our eyes the name renegade describes best our upcoming journey - we are rebels who have chosen an unordinary path and do not let the norms of ordinary life interfere.” says Kristiina Mehik, one of the tea enthusiasts.

The entrepreneurs from the Baltic states are participating in a state program which was initiated in 2016 in order to restore old tea fields.

Mehik said, tea enthusiasts plan to produce about 25 tonnes of tea after 4-5 years and we plan to export the majority of it, mainly to Europe and Northern-America. Photo:Kristiina Mehik.

While many of the areas have been rooted to grow corn or nuts, there are still today a lot of abandoned estates waiting in standstill. Luckily the tea plants are very durable and many of the fields can still be brought back to life. The entrepreneurs started to look for tea plantations in the early months of 2017 and after visiting about 50 of them in all of western Georgia, two were chosen to start with in the Imereti region.

We have made initial investments and preparations - the first steps of rehabilitation have been completed in a plantation near Opurchkheti- the plot has been cleaned from weeds, bushes and small trees and new shoots have started to grow from the trimmed tea bushes. At the moment we are cleaning the second estate in Mandikori and have started to renovate a building to set up a tea factory in Gumati”, Mehik said.

Agenda.ge interviewed Mehik and she told us about her life and work experience in Georgia.

Q. What encouraged you to come to Georgia and why have you chosen the tea industry to be involved in?

A. The road to Georgia and tea was actually a coincidence, like most things in life. We were planning to go to Rwanda with Hannes and reading about the country, there was a lot of information about tea plantations. The topic got our interest and we started to dig deeper.

But we did not get any response from the officials there, so there it stopped. As the topic of tea was still in our heads, Hannes soon remembered that his parents always drank Georgian tea when he was a child, so we decided to find out how Georgian tea is doing nowadays. To our surprise we found out that there's not much left from the heydays.

Mehik and her friends found an old, unused warehouse in the middle of another abandoned tea plantation which they will renovate. Photo: Kristiina Mehik.  

When we learned about the sudden collapse of the Georgian tea industry, it seemed unreal at first and it intrigued us so much that we decided to dig deeper. We were also moved by the fact that today’s global tea industry is filled with middlemen and big corporations who are focusing on mass production. In most cases the customer doesn’t really know where the tea is actually coming from, who has grown and produced it and in what kind of conditions. We saw a chance to do our part in changing both situations for the better.

We soon found out that the Georgian State has a project called "Georgian Tea” to support the rehabilitation of abandoned tea plantations and we got in contact with the agency APMA, which is coordinating this project. We had great cooperation with them and got a lot of support from other Georgian state institutions, for example the Georgian Embassy in Estonia helped us a lot. So, one thing lead to another and now we are here.

We have all grown up in small cities and have had a connection with the countryside in our lives, so leaving our corporate jobs and big office buildings behind to be closer to nature seemed very attractive as well.

The surreal collapse of the Georgian tea industry intrigued us so much that we decided that we want to give our part in reviving the tea plantations that have been abandoned for 30 years.

The entrepreneurs wish to help bring a little life back to the villages that once bloomed thanks to the tea industry. Photo: Miina Saak. 

Q. What are the challenges you face in Georgia in terms of living and also in terms of doing business here?

A. The biggest challenge so far has been to find a suitable building for the factory. Almost every industrial building nearby our tea fields had been either demolished or ruined. Building something from scratch was also not an option due to time constraints. But we finally found an old, unused warehouse in the middle of another abandoned tea plantation which we will renovate.

It has been also hard to find qualified employees at times, who will also speak either Russian or English. And since people have sometimes not had stable work for many years, it means that their lifestyle and expectations to work have adjusted. It’s not that easy to change those habits, it will take some time.

Learning Georgian has also been quite challenging as the alphabet is totally different from the Latin one, which we use in our language. For example the versions of letter "K” are quite difficult for us to pronounce- but we are making some small progress in this field as well luckily.

But the overall impression has been good and we have had quite a lot of support from both the government side and from many local people who have showed us how they make tea and helped us in understanding the Georgian culture.

The entrepreneurs are participating in the state project called "Georgian tea". Photo: Tomi-Andre Piirmets. 

Q. How favourable is the business environment in Georgia and what kind of support do you get from state programs for producing tea?

A. The experience of doing business in Georgia has been positive so far, of course there were some hardships in the beginning, but mainly they come from cultural differences and the way we do business in different countries. But communicating with the state for example has been very positive and quick, all the institutions have been very supportive. Also, many things are even easier and more logical in Georgia than in Estonia. For example, opening a bank account in Georgia took 20 minutes, in Estonia it took 1.5 hours.

We are participating in the state project called "Georgian tea”, which means that we are renting the lands for 25 years. Since we, as foreigners, can’t own the lands, then without this project we could not have invested here.

As Mehik said leaving corporate jobs and big office buildings behind to be closer to nature seemed very attractive as well. Photo: Oliver Lavits. 

Q. Could you please tell us what is the amount of tea you produce in Georgia and how much are you going to export?

A. We see great potential in producing high quality organic tea. Demand for such tea is higher than supply and it’s growing fast. We believe that this is the only direction for Georgian tea that is competitive in the world market, as Georgian cost level is too high for mass-production teas to compete with Africa and South-East Asia. We plan to produce about 25 tonnes of tea after 4-5 years and we plan to export the majority of it, mainly to Europe and Northern-America.

Also, we plan to integrate tea production with tourism, as maintained tea plantations would be good attractions for tourists. Georgian tea plantations have good potential being tourism attractions as possible competitors in this segment are much harder to access from Europe.

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