The black tea, perceived to be an immunity booster against flu and viruses, is seen gaining traction worldwide amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Producers of black tea in the country are getting enquiries from buyers overseas.

Researchers from Taiwan and China have reported that presence of Theaflavins, an antioxidant polyphenol that helps boost the immune system, present in black tea could be a potent compound for anti SARS-CoV-2 (Covid19). However, the industry here is cautious in accepting these claims.

Data collection

As it requires further scientific data or information including clinical trial data etc, UPASI-Tea Research Foundation is compiling all the available data from various studies and literature on the subject, an official of the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) said.

This data would be submitted to Tea Board for further action in consultation with the Commerce Ministry, Indian Council for Medical Research, and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for a policy decision, the official added.

Lankan branding

Reports indicate that neighbouring Sri Lanka, a large tea producer, has decided to promote its Ceylon black teas globally as a wellness drink that could prevent Covid-19 by improving the immune system. The market sentiment is strong in Sri Lanka and exporters from Europe, CIS and Iran are buying in full strength in orthodox teas, trade sources said.

“Things are looking bright for India also. We have been receiving enquiries and overseas buyers are keen on knowing when the auctions are likely to commence and when the shipping lines would be opened and fresh contracts will be taken up,” said N Lakshmanan, a senior tea planter in Coonoor who also exports black tea to Europe.

“India should follow Sri Lanka in promoting black teas as an immunity booster. The industry should make use of this situation and come up with a definite plan to address the post-corona lockdown,” Lakshmanan said.

PK Bezbaruah, Chairman, Tea Board, said “a lot more” should be done in promoting the Indian black tea to boost consumption, both in domestic and international markets.

The Indian teas, particularly Assam and the South Indian teas, have a very high proportion of the Theaflavin compound and hence should ideally be more effective, Bezbaruah said.

Export potential

“I think this can help push exports, particularly at a time when the output is expected to be at least 15 per cent lower this year as tea estates are likely to be shutdown for a period of around 20 days during the crucial first flush season,” Bezbaruah said.

The Tea Board Chairman is also considering taking up the matter with the Commerce Ministry.

‘While tea, because of its natural antioxidants, is good to build immunity, there is no direct research or scientific evidence which suggests drinking tea could help fight against Covid-19. Hence ITA would not make any such claims. Nonetheless, we have taken up a social media campaign talking about the health aspects of tea and how you can bond with your family over a cup of tea during this period of lockdown,” said Vivek Goenka, Chairman, ITA.

“This lockdown period can be and is taxing for everyone. We urge you to make a routine for yourself which isn’t too off from your usual routine and get on with your day as usual…whatever you do don’t forget your favourite cup of Tea. Let’s build our ImmuniTea,” said ITA in a Facebook post recently.

According to Sujit Patra, Secretary, ITA, several research conducted over the last many years have suggested that tea is good for heart and is also an immunity booster.

Meanwhile, tea exports from India have come to a standstill not only during the lockdown period but from the escalation of the Iran-US standoff. This has resulted in the piling up of stocks in godowns. Many export consignments are awaiting shipments in several ports. “We have close to 400 tonnes of tea lying in warehouses, meant for both export and upcountry markets,” said Venkitaraman Anand, CEO, Harrisons Malayalam Ltd.

Cargo shortfall

The absence of required export cargo, especially during the lockdown period, has also prompted shipping companies to skip Indian ports. “We are also trying to ship the cargo through Tuticorin Port, but this has not materialised in the absence of the required number of container trailers. Though the government has announced relaxations in moving tea consignments, it is not happening in reality. The easing of curbs is not properly communicated to the law enforcement agencies on the road and there were instances where the cargo held up by the police at several places,” he said.

Tea exporters are now facing acute cash flow problems due to non-realization of export commitments, which are beyond their control. The stoppage of tea auctions in the last two weeks also resulted in a cash crunch for the downstream producers. Due to the shutdown of retail stores, the demand for tea by the end-consumers have also come down, resulting in reduced buying from upcountry buyers, Anand added.

“The existing buyers are asking on the present consginments and we are trying to hold over so that they would not cancel the order. But no new buyers have contacted us directly. We understand that some demand is coming in, which will be known only when the tea auctions commence,” he said.