Coronavirus closures in India and Kenya threaten global tea supplies, with traders racing to secure stocks.
In India, which is in the middle of a three-week halt to stop the spread of the virus, production in the main growing regions of Assam and Darjeeling stopped just as the plucking season was about to start.
The first flush at Darjeeling, one of the most popular breweries in the world known as “champagne” tea, has already been lost, the planters said. The leaves, which enjoy a world premium for their delicate flavor, are now too long and difficult to harvest.
Even though the lockdown ends on April 14 as planned – officials have said it could last longer – planters have said it will take weeks to re-prepare the bushes, which could threaten the next round of picking .
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“We are going to lose a huge amount of crops,” said Prabhat Bezboruah, a farmer in Assam and chairman of the Indian Tea Board. “Many gardens are in great trouble.”
According to Ibi Idoniboye, an analyst at the commodity data firm Mintec, from African producers such as Kenya, the flow of tea from plantations to ports and beyond has been disrupted.
Kenya started its own 21-day partial foreclosure this week, which includes the port city of Mombasa, a large tea transport hub.
The curfew in Sri Lanka has temporarily halted production although it has since restarted. Trade was also disrupted in China, the world’s largest producer of tea.
When India announced the foreclosure, it indicated that tea production would be designated as an essential and exempt service. But local authorities in Assam and Darjeeling have not granted the necessary permits to keep the gardens open.
“The first Darjeeling flush is gone, and if we don’t open soon, the second flush will be gone,” said Vivek Goenka, president of Warren Tea and president of the Indian Tea Association.
Idoniboye expects international supplies to tighten over the next three to six months, with India losing around 150,000 tonnes of tea, or 10% of its production.
Concerns about the supply prompted traders to increase orders to prevent further disruption. “We have worked very hard to secure the tea,” said a UK-based tea trader. “People have shipped as much as they could in the past three weeks.”
Tea was one of the products that buyers rushed to buy before the foreclosure. In the week before March 21, sales of tea in the UK increased 55% from the same period last year, according to Nielsen, the consumer data group.
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Before the onset of the crisis, the tea industry had suffered from a glut that had driven prices down globally. Export prices for major producers in Kenya, India and Sri Lanka fell to their lowest level in 11 years in March.
Low prices had already left producers in India, which was experiencing an economic slowdown and a credit crunch, in a precarious state. One of the country’s largest tea companies went bankrupt last year, and tea farmers now fear that the lack of income could be fatal.
“If it didn’t come after two terrible years in a row, I think we could have mitigated it,” said Nazrana Ahmed, tea planter in Assam. “But now it’s absolutely exhausting.”