Perspective: The Stories of These Women Tea Workers Should Inspire a More Successful Value Chain

Sometimes you come across something that leaves you with an irresistible need to share, to let others know what you just experienced. That happened to me a few weeks ago.

In my work in the global tea industry, I interact with many tea gardens and factories, and indeed it is always my happy place. These places are generally very people-heavy, with most gardens still hand-plucking. In the specialty sector in particular, processing is also very manual and traditional in many places.

Last month, we were hosted by a factory that so inspired me that I want to share their untold story of goodness.

Siddha Devi tea estate, situated 7,600 feet above sea level in Ilam, Nepal, was the location I chose for specialty tea processing training for my group of small and midsize tea enterprises. The work was funded by the European Union and facilitated by the International Trade Centre (ITC) as part of their Myanmar Arise Plus project.

Siddha Devi Tea Estate Nepal
Siddha Devi tea estate, Nepal (Photo by: Joyce Maina)

Why Did I Choose Siddha Devi?

I know Siddha Devi has a great, well respected tea maker and planter – Andrew Gardner – which was a key reason why I chose them for the special training. I also know they’re passionate about quality, not volume – a mantra that I preach to all specialty tea producers. And I had heard good things about their work in sustainability, too.

But what I saw for myself blew me away. I saw firsthand their real actions, positively changing lives in the community they work in. In particular, I was awed by what they are doing to help and support single mothers and women from the local villages.

These young women (many in the 18 to 22 years age bracket) have some heartbreaking stories to tell about their lives before, and I must admit to shedding a tear or two when hearing some of them.

Siddha Devi (and Andrew Gardner) have saved not just the lives of these women, but their family livelihoods and their children’s, too.

The tea estate does more than provide much-needed employment, housing and amenities (electricity, gas, water, etc.). No, there is much more. The women are taken in, given a decent place to live, and their children are placed in a local school – all paid for by the company. And each of them has become the key breadwinner for their families.

Sapana’s Story – ‘I Want to Be a Boy’

Forced into marriage to an elderly man at the age of 16, Sapana became a mother at 17. Sapana did not want this, but she had no say in the matter. Her husband soon left her and remarried, leaving her and her child desperate and penniless with no source of income.

She came to Siddha Devi tea estate at the age of 18, along with her small child, looking for work. She was taken in and now works in specialty tea making. Her smile is infectious, her work impeccable. But above all, she feels safe and secure, and her son is looked after and going to school – something she could never have dreamed of having.

“If being a girl means they can just do this to you, then I want to be a boy,” Sapana declared. She cut her hair and switched to wearing trousers, and she loves to wear her baseball cap.

Siddha Devi Tea Estate Nepal
Sapana, on the right, a worker at Siddha Devi tea estate (Photo by: Joyce Maina)

Dhan Maya’s Vow – ‘I Never Want to Get Married’

Dhan Maya grew up in a home where domestic violence was the order of the day. The trend continued as she witnessed her elder sister being abused by her drunken husband. When they heard that Siddha Devi was hiring, she and her sister approached them. Now, they both work at the factory, share accommodation on-site, and the company is educating her sister's two children.

Dhan Maya works like it's her own enterprise – so hardworking that she has been promoted from daily wage worker to supervisor. She organizes the rest of the team every day, and together they make outstanding specialty teas – silver, green, gold, oolong and black. She looks after all the processes to ensure each tea type is made correctly. She records timings, temperatures and runs the machines. She knows when the tea is correctly withered or oxidized, and can tell what type of tea the incoming leaf is good for. She is a tea maker, and this is impressive as the majority of teamakers in the world are men.

Dhan Maya is only 19 years old, and says she never wants to get married.

Tika’s Tale – ‘I Love to Dance’

Tika is very lively and loves making TikTok videos (somehow, she managed to talk me into doing a video with her; I don’t know how!). But her life was not always fun.

Tika lived in the village nearby and lost her father when she was very young. Being the eldest and looking at the hard times her mother was facing, bringing up her many siblings, she gave up her studies to help with the home. She too joined the company on daily wages, but always wanted to work in security.

Since joining Siddha Devi, she has been able to support her family and privately continue with her studies. Now, she controls who enters and leaves the site, operates the generator that has to be turned on every time power goes out (several times a day), and ensures all security issues are taken care of.

Siddha Devi Tea Estate Nepal
At Siddha Devi tea estate (Photo by: Joyce Maina)

Ganga and Jamuna – The Twins

Jamuna looks after the tea estate’s accounts while Ganga takes care of administration, worker attendance records and work allocation.

Sweet, warm and infinitely respectful, the twins share their accommodations and walk together every day to the factory, beginning their duties at 7.30 in the morning.

Their parents could not support further education, so the twins were faced with joblessness, the looming possibility of early marriage, and a life of poverty in the village.

Having heard of Andrew Gardner and his work supporting women and young girls, the twins reached out across several districts and got in touch with Gardner at Siddha Devi. Here, they have found not just gainful employment that pays for their training (Jamuna is continuing her training in accounts, while Ganga wants to be a teacher), but also the support in time off and mentoring to further their education and careers.

Of course, I could go on and tell you dozens more stories like these, but you get the gist.

Siddha Devi Tea Estate Nepal
Joyce Maina (center) with two of the workers at Siddha Devi tea estate (Photo by: Joyce Maina)

24 Young Women Who Are Building a Life Through Tea

These are just some of the stories at this tea estate. There are a total of 24 young women living on site, and another 20 in similar circumstances who come in daily.

Work is underway to complete a second accommodation block for these workers and women. The stories are all similar, but they have all had a happy ending at Siddha Devi – a job, a home and a sanctuary.

The entire tea estate operates with a 99-percent woman workforce. At peak season, More than 200 women work in the fields and factory, turning up with a smile and ready to take on the day knowing they are safe and happy. Seeing them together, I sensed their sisterhood, born out of shared experiences, and enhanced by shared purpose and resolve to survive.

Real Action, Not Just Words

What is really special about the stories about these women is that in a world where we see and hear much chest-thumping from corporations – when they so much as donate an insignificant amount to a “good cause” – this is a story that often goes untold. The good work just happens in the background.

All of the great work at this tea estate is being done because the young founder – Holiska Koirala – having studied sustainability, felt a real need to turn learning into action and took it upon herself to make that happen – locally, sustainably, without seeking any donations, or shouting about it.

A meeting of like minds – Koirala found Andrew Gardner, who was already doing similar initiatives elsewhere. Gardner is given the freedom to support any young woman in need who turns up – no one is turned away. He is more than just their boss – he is a father figure, a mentor and a protector. To him, this is the ultimate purpose. “…in work… there is success and satisfaction; I choose the later,” he says, with much wisdom and humility.

Looking deep into the girls’ eyes at this tea estate, and at their beaming faces, I knew I just had to share some of their stories.

Siddha Devi Tea Estate Nepal
At Siddha Devi tea estate (Photo by: Joyce Maina)

Inspiration for the Global Tea Industry

As an industry, we have a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to reportable impact from sustainability and doing good. Recently, there has been negative reports with regard to how women are treated in some tea estates, which is absolutely horrendous. There are, though, many good stories like this, and they should and must be told.

Many are about action by individual companies who have their corporate heart in the right place, and truly go out to make fix issues, offer support and build the producers for the future.

Combined effort is actually what’s needed, and it will always produce a much bigger impact. And it’s good to see that this is happening more and more within the tea industry, with players joining hands to address big issues, such as the community of practice aimed at responding to and preventing gender based violence in the tea sector in Kenya. Another examples is the great, combined work that jointly supports remote communities that supply tea and tea ingredients. Whichever route all of this takes, the most important thing is that we’re seeing meaningful change that’s sustainable. We need the world to hear more of these stories, and we need our industry to hear more of these stories.

Action, Not Just Words

In the end, it’s about action and not just words. Let’s truly focus on doing good and changing lives for producers and their communities, and let’s build that into our tea businesses – not because it makes the business look good to consumers, but because it really is the most important thing.

From that seed grows a successful and thriving value chain.

Joyce Maina is an international tea expert and consultant with more than 30 years of industry experience. Her unique crop-to--cup tea value chain experience has covered the breadth of growing, processing, grading, tasting, buying, selling, blending and tea brand execution with customers and consumers. Having worked with several major global tea brands and companies on many international markets – from Europe to America and the Middle East – Maina has gathered broad and diverse experience in all things tea. She has created many blends for these markets herself, and she has a patent or two in her name. At Cambridge Tea Consultancy, which she founded in 2019, Maina provides advisory services, working with many tea businesses, as well as development agencies on projects including market access, quality assessment and categorization, sourcing, blend creation, starting a tea business and market support. She also provides tea education and training (something she believes in profoundly), and speaks at various tea events around the world. Maina also sits on the board of the European Speciality Tea Association and is an international consultant for the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization. To learn more, visit

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