Curious how a 4000+ acre organic regenerative tea garden comes to be? It starts with a few brilliant minds and a dream to do things right. We had a conversation with one of our founders, Anis Ahmed to learn more about how our beloved garden came to be.
Molly: Hey, everyone. We're back with another Founder's Friday. My name is Molly Waller, and I'm the Senior Marketing Manager at Teatulia, joined by my partner in crime, Elsa Meyners, our Associate Marketing Manager. And today, we are sitting down with our last founder, Dr. Kazi Anis Ahmed, or better known to us as Anis. Welcome, Anis! We really appreciate you taking the time out of your evening to come chat with us.
Anis: Absolutely. My pleasure
Molly: Awesome. So we would love to kick things off by having you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you went to school. How did you get involved in the Teatulia project?
Anis: Ah, okay. I grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I finished high school from here, and my brother and I always wanted to study in America for college. So when college time came, we scanned all these colleges, and super nerds that we were, we actually got really smitten with the idea of a liberal arts education, which doesn't really exist in this part of the world, or in England, where a lot of people go from here. The education is so much more narrow and specialized. But this idea that you could study across so many different fields and subjects was enthralling to us. Then as we kept researching these universities, it turned out Brown University had the most liberal of liberal arts programs, so that became our first choice, and we were lucky enough to, both of us, get into that. (This is my older brother Nabil, who is only 11 months older than me.) We were in the same year in school, so when the time came to go to college, we weren't actually planning to go to the same school, but happenstance made the same school our top choice, and we both got in, and we both went there. (laughs)
So that was the education part. We both came back home after education and worked a year in news media that was owned by our family at the time. Nabil stayed on. Much later, he went for a Master's to the London School of Economics, but at that time, I was so keen on becoming a writer that the work-life didn't appeal to me, and I just basically fled. I went back to the US to a writing program in St. Louis, Washington University, and I went there because they gave me a full ride. And once I finished that, I loved literature, I loved writing, so I wanted to stay with that, so I went on to do a Ph.D., of all things in comparative literature. And that was from NYU, and I partly chose NYU because it's in New York and what a chance to live in New York. And what an experience it was. So once I finished all my extended and extensive studies, I came back home, and my family, as you guys know, already owned this family business, which was diverse, quite diverse, and into different things. At that time, we were also branching into a lot of new areas as well, my father was heavily investing in new areas, and he was very keen for me and my younger brother to join the business. Nabil was already in it. And at that point, I kind of really felt like that, you know, I've so far been free to do my own thing, I've had fun, I did what I wanted to do, but I also had a real sense of obligation to my family and to the country where I come from. I felt this would be a great way to give back, so that's why I came back after my Ph.D. in January 2004, that I joined the family business. One of the projects that I joined from the getgo was our Teatulia Tea Garden, and initially, at that time, we didn't have a brand or consumer brand. It was just a tea garden, and I started work at that. As well as a non-profit, the first liberal arts college in Bangladesh that we founded as a non-profit project, I was involved with that as well. And that was the start.
Elsa: Cool, how did your father's story with the garden begin?
Anis: That's quite interesting, actually. It's an organic garden, and our company overall has also evolved organically. Because my father by training is an engineer and he studied on army scholarships, he got drafted in the army and spent a good chunk of his early career in the army, retired as a Lt. Colonel, helped found the Bangladesh military academy. But at the age of 39, he decided he felt that what he really wanted to do is his own thing. So he resigned from the army and started a company, and it was an engineering company because that was his training and his area of expertise. But 20 years on, that was in 1979...by 2000, he had met with enough success, with mainly his engineering, but also a couple of other businesses, that he wanted to invest more heavily in Bangladesh. He felt that was the best way to give back to the country and create more employment. And now one of our engineering units, which produces spun prestressed concrete poles for electrification, was located in this northernmost district of Bangladesh called Panchagarh. And a subdistrict of that, the very northern sub-district of Bangladesh, is called Tetulia. And it's so far up north in Bangladesh that you can, on clear days, see not only hills in India, but on really clear days you can see the Himalayas up in Nepal. That's how far north it is. And it was a remote area and among the tourist districts in Bangladesh, not very industrialized. And he felt, 'You know what? I've had a lot of success with this engineering unit in this area, and this is the kind of place that needs investment.' So he went on to build a jute mill there, jute being natural fiber that's usually used for making carpets or sacks, especially for agrarian product storage. He did that, and he felt that you know what, this area is suitable for a tea garden, and no one has made a tea garden here yet. Right across the border, there were tea gardens in India but not one in Bangladesh. So that's when the idea first came to him, from a desire to reinvest in an area that had been good for his business that was very much in need of investment. And that's how the idea of a tea garden came. The organic component came actually from more of a personal side because at that time, my mother, for health reasons, was really exploring all kinds of alternative life choices very deeply, from meditation to reiki to eating vegetarian. And in the process, she discovered organic, and I had kind of been exposed to that living in America, so in the house and the family, these are things we talked about. And I think collectively, we all felt ‘hey we are trying to do something new, and something that really gives back to people or society. So we are going to invest and make this garden up north, which will hopefully be beautiful, and it will create a lot of jobs, but why not make it organic?’ There are no organic gardens or farms of any kind in Bangladesh. They're rare. Some people did it, but it was informally, or even when it was done on a large scale in some cases, they were not internationally certified or certified in any way. But some people did do it; some people did try it, some had great success, they had done some work on scale, but not in tea. So we were the first organic tea garden from that area, and once we got into organic, we actually went far beyond organic, because the more we learned, whether it's the theories of somebody like Masobou Fukuoka, or also other teachers, other examples from around the world, we really felt that meeting the mere certification requirements of organic, while that itself is amazing and not easy and we think a great thing to do, very beneficial for nature and for the people who will work with the products or consume them, there was a lot more we could do. And what we went into was sort of a deep form of sustainability and regeneration. That's basically regenerative farming and eco-restoration, and it has been an amazing journey.
Molly: That it has. What's the biggest struggle that you've seen with this business, or what is kind of that mantra you guys live by?
Anis: Success didn't come easily or overnight. Partly because of the nature of the product, a tea plant takes seven years to come into maturity and give its full potential yield. You can start plucking around when it's 4 or 5 years old, but you need to be careful you don't want to damage the tea. Tea plants grow through its eventual desired shape, so when we were buying land and started to plant, you know, a lot of businesses you can launch the business and sometimes from day one or month one or simply within months of launching you have revenue and sometimes full capacity revenue or strong revenue. In a lot of cases, of course, most people don't break even in the first year or even in the first few years, but there's always revenue. But in this case, there was going to be no revenue for the first five years. We started planting in 2000, and we went into the auction, which is where all tea is traditionally sold in Bangladesh, for the first time in February 2004. That was my very first project for the group and the family, I'd just come back in January, and my father, who really believes in a sink-or-swim approach to training, told me we are going to go to auction with this tea. Take it to auction. So I started working with the team, went down to Chittagong, where the auction is, trying to figure out all the things you need to do. Make a nice fancy lunch of it, and one of the great tea masters of Bangladesh, who has now passed away, Mr. Nassam, who lived in Chittagong and who introduced our tea to the market, he said, 'You know, for a long time we've become accustomed in Bangladesh to drinking kind of low-end beer. It's great to get the taste of champagne.' That was his judgment on our first cup! On day one, when Bangladeshi teas were averaging about 80 takas a kilogram, which is maybe about a dollar, a dollar 10 cents, our first sale clocked in around 600 takas, and to this day, we have been the most prized tea in the Bangladesh auction but eventually when we made our own brand and then the international brand, of course, those teas go directly from the garden to the brand, to the package, packets that we have.
So, our big challenge was that initially, there was no revenue and the land itself was not easy to acquire because Bangladesh is a very, very congested country. So, a lot of times, there's a lot of spats and disputes. You know you buy the land from a family, and then you discover there are two brothers who can get paid, two of them had come and taken the money and gone, and now you have to settle it with these two. So there was a lot of heartache like that, but that's all power for the course here and at his point since it's so much more mature here those kinds of issues have settled and also initially we were not getting a lot of response from international buyers. That took a long time. And that's partly why we thought of launching our own brand. And ironically enough, once our own brand was out there on the market, some very top end buyers from Japan, Germany, certainly from the US or elsewhere approached us and were willing to pay us the kind of price that we wanted because we felt we should be valued on par with the best organic teas in the world. Whereas we were initially being offered a very low price because initially, Bangladeshi tea at that time did not have that kind of marquee value in the tea world.
So if you ask for a mantra: persistence. Resilience and persistence. The tea business, certainly at the garden level but possibly even at the branding level, is probably not for people who want to see revenues right away or have big fat margins right away. It's a business that you have to have a little passion for the product or the project and the stamina financially and otherwise to go a while before things start paying off.
Elsa: Thank you, Anis. Can you tell us how you decided to develop the cattle lending program and what drove the process?
Anis: Once again, that was one of those things that organically came about from responding to direct needs, or we were doing one thing, and then something else becomes apparent, or obvious or is a challenge that needs solving, and in this case, the challenge was that there were no organic, no certified organic players in Bangladesh, there was no acceptable organic fertilizer that we could just buy off the market, and also our own philosophy was such that we wanted to make it our own as much as possible, a very sort of self-sufficient, self-contained process, so we needed a lot of organic fertilizer, and one of the key ingredients for that would actually be cow dung. And the kind of quantity we needed was very hard to source just by going door to door, or how do you get so much? And then we actually started a dairy farm and that kind of went out of control. Even now, we have over, I think, 800 heads of cattle in the dairy farm, which is pretty large, probably one of the larger farms in Bangladesh. You may have way bigger farms in countries like Australia, or Argentina, or certainly the US where you have millions of square miles of land, but in Bangladesh, these things are on a very different scale. But we realize that we've got a sizable farm, and it's still not enough, but we don't want this farm to become bigger than the tea garden itself because that's not the main area where we want to be working. So what could be the solution? And we were sitting around just gabbing about it in our bungalow in the tea garden, and the way the question was formulated was kind of like, 'Where can we get three thousand cows?' And in Bangladesh, in the rural area, most people do a lot of homestead cattle rearing. They'll have just maybe two cows or four cows. I was kind of like, you know, within a radius of us, a certain radius of us, there are enough families with enough cows that we have them, the question is how do we get to them? And that's when, since Bangladesh has a long history of cooperatives and especially in world-famous models of NGOs that mostly do microfinance lending, so that kind of a concept wasn't very alien to us, and at that point, it became almost intuitive that we need a co-op because the co-op gives us the structure of the organization to be able to do the daily collection readily. It's not possible to go to 3000 individuals on a daily basis with whom we have nothing but just a daily transaction relationship when they have their own use for the cow dung, or they're busy that day they don't want to give it to you; they are busy doing something else. So we had to put it in a structure and incentivize it for them, and this cow lending program, which is very attractive for them. Then they're also incentivized to pay us back in the form of cow dung, and that's how it took off. And it's now serving a much bigger purpose than what we started with, with so many lives really transformed by it.
Elsa: Building on that, I know the women are the main cattle lenders in the co-op program, and in Bangladesh, women are not held as equals. How did you entice women in the community to want to be members of the program?
Anis: Well, in this case, it was actually very easy because, on the one hand, we are a socially and culturally still quite a traditional and conservative society, and women face a lot of restrictions or even outright discrimination that men don't face. But in many respects, actually, Bangladesh is also surprisingly progressive, and many Americans will probably be shocked, especially compared to other Muslim majority countries. For example, in Bangladesh, birth control has been a huge success, whereas, in certain countries like Pakistan or elsewhere, there's a lot of resistance to that. For that matter, abortion is legal. It's not a hot button issue in Bangladesh. So you know cultures are very interesting that way, even when you think that this is a more progressive or advanced society, they can still have things that are so shocking or scandalous for them. Whereas Another society, where you don't have many of the other liberties, can still be so at ease with those things. So when it comes to women and women working in the workplace, agricultural or otherwise, the decades of microfinance lending had already created the grounds for rural women to participate in the financial economy. So given that background, it wasn't a hard sell at all to go to the women and say, ‘hey, now you take a cash loan, and then you have to pay it back.’ But with a cash loan, you do a venture, and depending on which venture you do, sometimes if it goes belly up, you're still under obligation to keep paying the debt back, and then either you need a new loan, or you can get into a lot of trouble. Sometimes that happens. But in this case, we were going to give you a cow. And you pay us back in the form of cow dung, so as long as you take care of the cow, which you probably already do with the one or two cows that you already have or own, it's very easy. So for most of the women who have joined our program, many of them were already in microfinance, and some of them still might be, but actually, some of them actually ditched microfinance for this, and it proved to be in a way, safer, kind of debt to take and safer kind of investment to manage.
So it actually wasn't very hard, once we had the idea, we approached them. I actually remember the very first loans we gave out. It was in our garden, I had gone myself, and the very first 25 women, some of whom are still our members, I gave out 25,000 takas cash to each one, and at that point, it was just about a program, and we had no idea where it would go. That was maybe in 2007 or 8 I forget. Maybe 8. And now it's well over 3000 members.
Molly: Amazing. Thank you so much for taking us through the garden story, your father's story, your history. I kind of want to go backward and talk a little more about your personal life. We know that you're an author, and we'd really like to know about what you're writing right now, what drove that inspiration to write books. You have produced a couple of books already.
Molly: Just tell us a little more.
Anis: So ever since I was a kid, actually, somehow, I was totally taken with the idea of it. I just loved reading, I loved literature, and what I wanted to do more than anything else was writing. Even though I have really enjoyed business and do it full time, my passion for writing has stayed with me. By now, I have written a collection of short stories, a novel that came out from, which is available in the US, it's called Good Night Mr. Kissinger, a novel, a political novel, political satire that came out from Penguin Random House. I've also written a very short novella called For this Depths, which is out only in Bangladesh. And I just finished a new novel called the New Barbarians. And it's actually set in New York, about this age we are living in of hyperconsumption. And I wanted to take another kind of, really sort of, what I think is a fun take on that through the experience of foodism and taking things too far. It's about two friends who start a wild game restaurant in New York, and after a while, as they get into more and more financial trouble, things go haywire in all sorts of ways that I think are fun and interesting.
And I also write a lot of op-eds, not a lot but quite a bit both for Bangladeshi domestic outlets, including our own Dhaka tribune, but also I've written op-eds over the years for The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, usually, on or about Bangladesh. And many other outlets. So I do some non-fiction, mostly in the form of op-eds or journalistic articles, and then some literary essays here and there.
Molly: That's awesome. Will your new book be available in the United States?
Anis: Well, I certainly hope so. At this point, I've just finished it. I'm about to start shopping it around, and now I have to fall on my knees and pray to the high heavens of publishing and see if the right people pick it up in the US, the UK, and elsewhere.
Molly: We're crossing our fingers.
Anis: Thank you.
Molly: Will you tell us a little more about the Bangladesh Lit Fest and maybe the Liberal Arts College and those kinds of things?
Anis: Ah, Sure. So the Dhaka lit Fest is something that started in 2011 with the pilot program that was in collaboration with the Hay Festival, the famous Hay Festival of the UK. But in 2015, we decide to start going our own way and rebranded it as the Dhaka Lit Fest, which is now run by me and my two friends, Ahsan Akbar and Sadaf Saaz and all three of us are just passionate about literature, and we have a very certain international perspective when it comes to arts, culture, and literature. And we felt that despite a very rich history and heritage of literature in Bengal, somehow Dhaka in Bangladesh had become a little cut off from the really rich and diverse world of experiences out there, worldwide. Which, for lack of a better term, one might call world literature or whatever you want to call it. And we wanted to put ourselves back in dialogue with that wider world. And Dhaka Lit Fest was the platform that accomplishes that. We have brought, over the years, several hundred authors from all over the world and not just authors but all kinds of personalities from Nobel Laureate Scientists to beloved megastars like Tilda Swinton but also in really renowned authors like the late V.S. Naipaul, William Dalrymple, and many many others. Vikram Seth, and it's just been a tremendous experience for both readers and writers locally to engage with many kinds of writers and thinkers from around the world. And we've really also focused on bringing people from what for us are far-flung places. You know, bringing people from India, UK, or the US would be sort of an obvious choice for us, and they do dominate that because of the Anglophone connection, but we also go out of our way to bring writers from countries like Cuba, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Palestine, Syria, and so many other places. And that has really been an eye-opener for us. And the writers have come and have had a chance to discover Bangladesh, and Bangladesh has, in the process, gained many friends around the world.
Elsa: You mentioned your partner Ahsan, and I know the Tea Bar in London has more of a book focus. Can you speak a little bit about the UK Teaulia Division and how you decided to expand?
Anis: We had always, actually, had a little presence in the UK, even before we came into the US, initially through placements in Harrods. They have carried our tea for a long time and promoted it very nicely and at a certain point. And so at some level, and given that there's a big Bangladeshi diaspora there and that the UK is such a tea focused, one could even say tea-obsessed country, we felt that as an international brand, and given Bangladesh's historical connections to the UK, it made sense for us to have a face or a presence there as well. And at some point, rather than staying only in other outlets or chains, we felt it would be interesting to replicate the idea of our Denver Tea Bar and see what that would do for the brand whether we could communicate the uniqueness the brand of our tea, of our story our commitments, to the consumers in a more direct manner. And so far, we've been very pleased with that experiment. The shop in Covent Garden had done really well, was getting an amazing response. Unfortunately, we had to shut it down for now due to COVID. We will hopefully reopen next year, maybe even in a new location. But that was the whole idea behind the tea shop in the UK, to tell the Teatulia story to a wider world and given our passion for literature and given how for many tea drinkers, books are also a passion or for many book readers tea always goes with their reading especially in our culture, it kind of made sense to have a cozy atmosphere of books, and it was really Ahsan's idea to do what we call the 'Ten Books Library' so we get people of interest to name their ten favorite books and that's what we put up on the shelves there. So mostly these are people who came to our Dhaka Lit Fest, the kind of authors, stars, thinkers, scientists, that I've mentioned, journalists, they have given us, all friends of ours, have given us that list of books, and we get those books from second-hand dealers, and we put them up. People who come in are most welcome to just sit there and flip through any book they pick up. And if they want to, they can pay for it and take it home as well. So it's just been a lot of fun.
Elsa: That's really cool. I heard a rumor that Tilda Swinton was involved. Can you tell that story?
Anis: Yes, she was actually. She was the very first person to give us an idea of a list of 10 books. She has been a great friend to the Dhaka Lit Fest and when we told her that we were doing this Tea Shop in London, and it would have this interesting library in it, she has, many of her fans don't know this, but she is a huge, huge fan of literature and in particular, poetry and when she heard this, she was just so excited she actually helped us develop this idea and was the first one to give us the list of ten books, so she's been a very good support for the shop.
Elsa: Wow, cool.
Molly: As Teatulia is a family business, what do you hope for the next generation?
Anis: Well, isn't that an interesting question because on the one hand, I would, of course, love to see the next generation, so to speak, carry the torch, break new ground, do whatever they think will be interesting at that point. They will take it into new directions, maybe do new things, expand it in ways we can't foresee, transform it, etc. But as a personal thing, I also feel that I have to be careful not to "impose it on the next generation." Because I don't know what their personal and individual desire is going to be. In which case, as we involve as a family and a business, we would like to look at a way of modeling the business where if members of the next generation are interested and qualified, they can join the management of the business and contribute and also reap some rewards. But if they're not interested or sadly not qualified, then I don't think we will want them in management, but we will want them to do whatever else they might be qualified to do. And that may well happen. How do you know someone's not going to turn out to be a professional athlete or to play tennis or be a musician or wants to do their own thing? Whatever that might be, I have no idea. Maybe they want to become a lawyer or a scientist. You don't know. So if that happens, then they would be shareholders, but we would then have to institutionalize and professionalize the management so that hopefully, this great brand and stories definitely have meaningful continuity. And you know there are many examples of this kind of continuity around the world. Many families are in their 3rd of 4th generation. They are no longer directly in management. They may even have controlling shares, but the company is actually even publicly held or privately held, but very professionally run. So yeah, I would love to see the next generation take this into areas that we can't even foresee, but who knows. The next generation might not be literally the generation from our own family, but it may be the next generation who are kindred in spirit and who give the house of managing these businesses and creating something new.
Molly: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for all of your time and for letting us ask you so many questions.
Anis: Absolutely. My pleasure.