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Supplies are expected to tighten over the next three to six months, with India losing around 165,000 tons of tea, or 10 percent of its production.
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Lockdowns have interrupted the tea harvest around the world.

By Benjamin Parkin and Emiko Terazono

Coronavirus lockdowns in India and Kenya are threatening global tea supplies, with traders racing to secure stocks.

In India, which is in the midst of a three-week shutdown to stop the virus from spreading, production in the top growing regions of Assam and Darjeeling has ground to a halt just as the plucking season was due to begin.

The first flush in Darjeeling, one of the world’s most prized brews known as the “champagne” of tea, has already been lost, planters say. The leaves, which command a premium globally for their delicate flavor, are now too long and hard to harvest.

Even after the lockdown lifts — Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended it to May 3 — planters say it will take weeks to get the bushes ready again, which could also threaten the next round of plucking.

“We’ll lose a huge amount of crop,” says Prabhat Bezboruah, a grower in Assam and chairman of India’s Tea Board. “Many gardens are in deep trouble.”

The Darjeeling first flush is gone, and if we don’t open up soon the second flush will be gone.

Vivek Goenka, president of Warren Tea and chairman of the Indian Tea Association

In African tea-producing nations such as Kenya, the flow of tea from plantations into ports and beyond has been disrupted, according to Ibi Idoniboye, an analyst at commodities data firm Mintec. Kenya last week entered its own 21-day partial lockdown, which includes the port city Mombasa, a large tea shipping hub.

Curfews in Sri Lanka temporarily stopped production, though it has since restarted. Coronavirus has also disrupted trade in China, the world’s largest tea producer.

When India announced the lockdown, it indicated that tea production would be designated an essential service and thus be exempt. But local authorities in Assam and Darjeeling failed to grant the necessary permissions to keep the gardens open.

“The Darjeeling first flush is gone, and if we don’t open up soon the second flush will be gone,” says Vivek Goenka, president of Warren Tea and chairman of the Indian Tea Association.

Idoniboye expects supplies internationally to tighten over the next three to six months, with India losing around 165,000 tons of tea, or 10 percent of its production.

Concern over supply has prompted traders to increase orders to preempt any further disruption. “We’ve been working very hard to secure the tea,” says one U.K.-based tea trader. “People have been shipping out as much as they can over the last three weeks.”

Tea was one of the products that shoppers rushed to buy before the lockdown. The week of March 21, tea sales in the U.K. rose 55 percent from the same time last year, according to Nielsen, the consumer data group.

Man in the store 21288978

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Before the crisis hit, the tea industry had been suffering a bout of oversupply that had depressed prices globally. Export prices for leading producers Kenya, India and Sri Lanka fell to 11-year lows in March.

Low prices had already left growers in India — who were struggling through an economic slowdown and credit crunch — in a precarious state. One of the country’s largest tea companies defaulted last year and tea growers now worry that the lack of income could prove fatal.

“If it was not coming at the back of two successive terrible years, I think we would have been able to mitigate it,” says Nazrana Ahmed, a tea planter in Assam. “But now it’s absolutely back-breaking.”

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By Benjamin Parkin and Emiko Terazono

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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