Snapshot of an Industry in Flux: Tea and the Supply Chain in 2022

As we emerge into new realities, we must take stock of where we are now and confront the unfinished business of early 2020. What were we doing prior to the pandemic – before “supply chain” became part of our everyday language, when life wasn't described as “unprecedented”? The problems we faced then still await resolution, only now they're coupled with pandemic fallout, global inflation and repercussions of Russia's invasion into Ukraine.

The tea industry, of course, is not immune, and challenges persist, despite an overall increased interest in tea. Continued illness and death from the coronavirus, labor shortages and transportation issues are compounded by uncooperative weather, political upheaval and other major events. Relentless problems have exacerbated already precarious conditions in many places. Here are a few snapshots within the tea industry, which remains in flux.


India's overall production for 2021 – although higher than 2020 – remained under that of 2019, mostly because Assam and West Bengal produced too little tea. The situation hasn't improved, with heavy rains in June causing floods in Assam. Consequently, tea production for the first six months of 2022 is 20 percent lower than that for 2021. Unpredictable weather driven by climate change is unlikely to go away, which portends continued flooding in Assam and compounds the problems of Darjeeling's aging gardens.

Recent state-mandated wages for Assam would seem straightforward yet also demonstrate the complexity of the tea industry. Owners of small tea gardens argue that they can't afford these increases and are requesting subsidies; other growers contend that workers already make more than their counterparts in other areas of the world; and government officials have been accused of using these wage hikes as bargaining chips before last year's election. The West Bengal government also raised wages for tea workers, but the small increase is unlikely to do much for Darjeeling's poorly paid workers.


In neighboring Nepal, tea exports have been falling, even though its orthodox tea was trademarked two years ago. For a short time in mid-2021, Nepal stepped in when tea production in India and Sri Lanka sharply fell, but generally Nepal exports nearly all of its orthodox tea, along with about half of its CTC tea, to India (the tea is also tested in India because Nepal lacks its own facilities). However, India is now discouraging the movement of Nepali tea into India, proposing duties and certification standards. India argues that Nepali tea is of poor quality – yet India has also been criticized for blending Nepali tea with that from Darjeeling and passing it off as Darjeeling.


Badly paid with abject working conditions, striking workers in Bangladesh's tea industry were finally promised higher wages along with other improvements in benefits. Although tea producers maintain that they already provide sufficient benefits and lament their high production costs, the workers receive little in wages, lack basic benefits such as healthcare or educational opportunities, and face soaring costs of their own.

Sri Lanka

With Sri Lanka in continuing crisis, workers are leaving the colonial-era tea estates to seek better wages and living conditions. Flooding, landslides and years of tea production that degraded the soil meant that tea growers weren't in a good position when chemical fertilizers were banned for part of 2021. They had little access to organic fertilizers, and when the ban was reversed late in the year, the price of chemical fertilizers had gone up twenty-fold due to the Russia-Ukraine war. The current fuel shortage in Sri Lanka is also keeping production costs high. During the first six months of 2022, the country's tea production fell 18 percent.


Although Kenya produces more black tea than any other country, the industry struggled in the second half of  2021, with tea exports down and the price of tea lower than the cost to produce it. To sustain the industry, the Ministry of Agriculture instituted a minimum selling price in August of 2021, and smallholder tea farmers have apparently benefited so far in 2022. Still, overall exports fell by 16 percent by volume even though exports to Russia had increased from January to May. To mitigate high production costs, Kenya continues to explore other options, such as machine harvesting and alternative fertilization methods.Small-scale farmers produce around 60 percent of Kenya's tea, with commercial and multinational operations, some established during British colonial rule, accounting for the rest. Recently, two tribes sued the United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights, charging colonial abuse that included taking – and keeping – land in tea-growing Kericho.

South Africa

The rooibos industry in South Africa has been in the news for several reasons. This herbal tea has a deep history, and now is enjoying global enthusiasm. A five-year drought was damaging, but the industry rebounded with the drink being marketed as a "premium tea," and, in 2021, rooibos was given “protected designation of origin” by the European Union.

Significantly, the Khoi and San people of South Africa are finally being acknowledged for their critical role in bringing rooibos to the world. Despite sharing their knowledge and expertise, they were not party to the profits as rooibos' popularity grew. To partially redress this, a trust fund for the Khoi and San peoples was established, with rooibos producers paying into the pilot program.


The world's most prolific tea drinkers by capita, the Turks broke their own record last year, consuming 4 kilograms of tea per person. With such a robust domestic market, Turkey keeps more of its tea than it exports. However, as worldwide demand for tea has increased, Turkey is filling in, especially as Sri Lanka's tea production declines. In the first months of 2022 (January to April), Turkey exported 54 percent more tea by volume than during the same period last year, and exported to nearly 100 countries.


Japan continues to innovate to keep tea culture alive (e.g., packaging powdered green tea in cigarette-like boxes to be sold in old vending machines) and boost the industry. As tea producers face rising fuel and fertilizer costs, new manure-based fertilizers have been developed. To address carbon dioxide emissions, experiments have begun in two tea gardens. Waste generated from the gardens will be made into biochar before being mixed back into the soil, in the hope that less carbon dioxide is produced during decomposition.


Black tea continues to be attractive to young people in China, even though the country is the world's top green tea producer. And although China also produces many fine black teas itself, it has started to import Darjeeling tea.

Still, the tea industry within China is robust and well poised to recover from setbacks. Its steady domestic market ensures that tea workers remain in demand and enables the industry to expand and to mass-produce bulk tea for export. U.S. tariffs on tea from China are still in place, however, despite calls from American tea organizations to end them, especially as tea has grown more popular in the States.

Transportation Industry

The current forecast is for the ocean freight industry is less dire than it's been, although ports remain congested, especially in North America and northern Europe, which is also impacted by the ongoing Russia–Ukraine war. Reliability in the past few months barely cleared 40 percent; for comparison, pre-pandemic reliability ranged from mid-70 percent to mid-80 percent. Still, improvements in the shipping industry, together with high jet fuel prices, have prompted a drop in air freight volume as cargos return to transport by ship.

Other bottlenecks remain, however. In the United States, there's an ongoing shortage of trucks and drivers and the narrowly averted rail shutdown. In many places around the world, river transportation has slowed or stalled as lengthy droughts have reduced rivers to abysmally low levels.


Continued disruptions in tea production and transportation, along with increasing prices, are particularly troubling for small- and micro-businesses in the United States. They can't predict when their tea orders may actually reach their doorstep, and, meanwhile, their expenses are soaring. They may be loath to pass too many of their costs on, particularly if they specialize in high-quality – and already pricey – tea because customers can easily shop elsewhere.

As tea drinkers (and professionals in the tea industry), we depend on tea-producing countries to grow and process our tea, and we trust that those countries can get that tea to us. Further, we want that tea – or most of it anyway – affordable. But is this sustainable in today's world – which is increasingly unbalanced economically, is beset by unpredictable weather that puts all agriculture (not just tea) at risk, and is torn apart by war?

Some countries, such as Japan, look for ways to combat climate change and bring innovation to the industry. Other tea producers, such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, simply don't have the resources; they're just trying to survive. However, for the best outcome for both people and tea, things will have to change. Whether as business owners or consumers, our buying choices may make a real difference for that grower who owns a small garden, for the gardens that are striving for sustainable practices, for those who are trying to provide fair terms for their workers, for those who continue to work for diversity and quality of product. With tea the second-most consumed beverage in the world, we must ensure that the industry remains robust.

Jill Rheinheimer draws on her deep background in scientific research and written communication to make tea-related research and history accessible to a general audience She began her career in cell biology research labs, eventually moving into archaeology and anthropology as editor and publisher of scholarly monographs, while freelancing as editor, writer and book designer. Rheinheimer brings a love for research and photography, attention to detail and deep appreciation for the world of tea to her blog, It’s More Than Tea, and her work at TeaHaus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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