Kazi Anis Ahmed and his family’s 12-year-old organic tea farm are so successful that they have—in Ahmed’s words—brought an economic boom to a once-barren and impoverished area of northwest Bangladesh. “My parents have always believed it is as important to try and help others along with their goals… as it is to excel in one’s chosen field,” says Ahmed, co-founder and director of Kazi and Kazi Tea Estate Ltd., the single source of the increasingly popular Teatulia brand of tea.
“The garden was started by my dad,” Ahmed says. Family members knew nothing about tea farming at the time—their business was in media and construction—but Ahmed’s father, Kazi Shahid, knew the area, which is about two hours south of India’s famed Darjeeling tea region, and felt it could be done. So he bought 3,000 acres of land with that purpose in mind.
Ahmed, who resides in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with his wife and newborn son, was actually in the United States at the time, pursuing a career in comparative literature (he holds a doctorate from New York University). But he was looking for a “deeper engagement in the wider world,” he says. Ahmed’s father had always wanted him and his brothers to do something they were passionate about, so when he went to his sons with the idea of growing their own tea, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Teatulia was not going to be just any tea, though. From the beginning, Ahmed insisted the farm be organic. He read everything he could find on organic farming and was especially inspired by The One-Straw Revolution by Japanese farming master Masanobu Fukuoka. Today Teatulia is the only USDA-certified organic tea in Bangladesh.
“We started the farm from scratch on virgin soil, which made it easy to be organic from the get-go,” says Ahmed. The garden uses no pesticides, machinery or unnatural irrigation, and the company ships its teas directly to stores with no middlemen. “Being organic was a novel concept in the country at the time,” Ahmed says. Yet the garden is now one of the largest organic tea gardens in the world, and the family continues to cultivate an additional 100 new acres each year.
As the company and the farm grow, they create jobs, bringing greater economic prosperity to the isolated and desertlike section of Bangladesh where they bought the first acreage. The area is among the poorest in Bangladesh, which is one of the world’s poorest nations.
“Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers were teachers, and their sense of a social commitment has remained an abiding value even as our family has flourished in new professions,” Ahmed says. He and his brother persuaded their father to make the tea business part social development project.
This meant making the farm sustainable, and not just from an environmental standpoint. So the family designed the tea garden to include a cooperative. When people join, they receive a cow that provides milk for their families. In exchange, cooperative members pay for the cow by giving the garden 20 to 40 pounds of manure per day as fertilizer for the tea garden. Members also can keep any calves borne by their cow, and, within two to three years, most have paid for the animals.
Today, the tea garden employs 600 people, but joining the cooperative is not a requirement. “The cooperative is open-platform,” Ahmed says. “You can work in the garden and not be a part of the co-op, and there are people who are members of the co-op who don’t work in the garden.”
The idea of loaning out cows to local farmers has served Teatulia well. Since the family started the co-op in 2005—after studying well-known models such as Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes—the membership has grown from 20 to 1,200 families. And those families’ cows provide more than enough fertilizer for the garden.
Besides helping feed and employ local families, the garden has brought growth to the local economy. Ahmed says new stores started opening in the region in 2004, and today there is a full bazaar. “It’s because of the increased income in the community. And now there are other gardens and small farmers who do tea growing. One of the country’s leading poultry companies has moved here, too.”
The Teatulia Cooperative is also giving back directly. It built a library for one of the local schools and has also established several small schools throughout the region designed to serve children who have dropped out of education at an early age. “We contribute some materials, and the community contributes the labor,” says Ahmed, who also has assisted in the creation of the country’s first liberal arts college.
“I had this continuous thought that if we could solve the problems of the land, of the fertilizer, we could solve the problems for many people,” Ahmed was quoted as saying in the online publication The Daily Beast. But consumers still had to buy the tea for the whole thing to work. Luckily, they did.
Ahmed says the tea has become popular in Bangladesh because it appeals to “a new segment of consumers more interested in social and natural sustainability.” The company branched out beginning in 2005, making Teatulia available first in the United Kingdom and then in the United States, where it can be found in select Whole Foods stores and other leading natural-foods grocers. Its next market will be Japan.
While consumers enjoy the fact the tea is responsibly and sustainably produced, its flavors are a major draw, too. “They love our uniquely robust, flavorful and smooth blends,” says Ahmed, pointing out the sweet aftertaste of Teatulia’s black tea and the unique flavors of the brand’s Tulsi and lemongrass varieties. Sales figures for 2012 affirm the appeal: U.S. consumption of Teatulia tea has overtaken that in Bangladesh, at least as far as dollar value, he says.
Teatulia has had the most impact back home, however. “You can see the second-highest peak of the Himalayas from here,” Ahmed says of the tea garden’s remote location. You can also see a community that offers living, thriving proof that sustainability works.