(Summer ’15) Rishi Reddy, G

Rishi Reddy (G, Business)

Rishi will be spending the summer in Yunnan, China working with Kangti Company to define an export strategy for teas picked by ethnic minority groups in southern Yunnan. Tea farmers in parts of China currently lack the financial and regulatory capacity to export some of the best teas in the world. Exportation represents a tremendous growth opportunity for these farmers and would result in significantly increased living standards. Rishi will work with Chinese regulatory agencies and farmer co-operatives to introduce high quality loose leaf teas to the artisanal American market in an effort to improve the livelihood of farmers in China.

Stories from the Summer

I split my time between the city of Kunming (where I lived in a 10 person dorm) and tea villages scattered on the Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar borders. I devoted my time in Kunming to exploring the large tea markets and understanding how tea makes its way from farms to Kunming and eventually to Guangzhou or Hong Kong, China’s largest purveyors of Yunnan’s Pu-er tea. It is not uncommon for foreigners to frequent the tea markets, but the tea shop owners I encountered had never met foreigners pursuing tea for intellectual gain. I was typically greeted by amusement as in “Foreigners like coffee, you like tea. That’s cute.” Tea shop owners would begin our conversation with a tea test. A typical test involved blind tasting two identical aged Pu-er teas and identifying by flavor which tea was aged in Yunnan and which was aged in Guangzhou. Guangzhou’s humidity imparts a sharper taste during the aging process. Only after passing these tests would tea shop owners open up and tell me about their family’s history, how and why they entered the tea trade, and what tea meant to them. I was struck by how similar their stories were to mine. A mother of a small child told me about her previous life – she described herself as catty and ill-tempered. But after she began to practice gongfu tea ceremony as part of her daily routine she has felt more at peace with herself and her family. I was reminded of my life before I adopted tea, perpetually anxious and never zen.

In my time outside of Kunming I visited villages in Honghe, Xishuangbanna, Dadugang, Simao, Menglian, Shuangjiang, and Fengqing. I also had the opportunity to visit some of Yunnan’s most famous tea mountains including Mansong Shan, Bulang Shan, Nanuo Shan, Hekai Shan, and Mengku Shan. The quality of teas in these areas is only surpassed by the hospitality of the locals. I would begin my days on a mountain bike, riding farm to farm. Upon arriving at a home, my introduction would always be the same: “I’m a graduate student from Harvard. I have come to Yunnan to study tea culture. Can you teach me?” My introduction would impart warm smiles on the face of farmers. We would then proceed to spend a few hours drinking tea together and sharing stories. Conversation was always challenging because my Mandarin is far from perfect, and many villagers speak local dialects that only vaguely resemble Mandarin to my untrained ear. But that never stopped me from learning about how tea had been in their families for generations and how it was the life of their communities. In some areas, like Bulang Shan, prized ancient tea trees had brought great wealth to the community with cars, smartphones, and TVs plentiful. In Honghe, this couldn’t be further from the case. The tea quality barely differed, but Honghe’s tea lacks the brand recognition of Bulang. Brand recognition equates to demand in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and demand drives prices and therefore local economic conditions. And that should trouble every tea enthusiast.

Stories from the summer abound but one particular story sticks with me. After a day touring farms, I was invited to spend the night in the home of a new friend, Jing Xue He. We spent the evening drinking Pu-er tea out of paper cups and chatting about our families and American culture. He asked me the most common question I heard in Yunnan, “How much does an iPhone6 cost in America?” He then spotted an enormous beetle squatting on his chair. He caught it with his fingers as it tried to escape. He then opened a drawer and placed it beside a live dragonfly. I peered into the drawer and saw his huge collection of live insects. I asked him why he maintained this meticulous, odd collection. He smiled and laughed. We continued to drink tea until it was time to sleep.

Interview with Samuel Cao

Samuel is founder of a Yunnan based social enterprise seeking to improve the livelihoods of villagers through tea cultivation.

Samuel was the first person from his village to attend university. He studied soil as an undergraduate and later completed an MBA. He worked in the special economic zone of Shenzhen and felt a calling from God to do something for his village. He observed that tea was popular in Shenzhen. His village has grown tea since the beginning of time and believed there was an opportunity to expand his village’s tea production. He quit his job in Shenzhen and moved back to Yunnan to work with tea. His first objective was to obtain an organic certificate. His village has always farmed wild trees organically but could never advertise that their teas were organic because they lacked the credentials. He spent three years working with regulatory agencies and raising the necessary funding (an organic certificate costs more than the average GDP in Yunnan). After he obtained the certificate, he invested in brand marketing to help his company grow and differentiate it from the plethora of tea companies in Yunnan. Things have gone well for him as he has begun to sell significant amounts of tea to Guangzhou, Taiwan, and is looking to move abroad. In addition to tea he is building a resort in his village for tourists from Kunming to visit and enjoy Honghe’s spectacular scenery. Profits from his ventures are invested back into the community to promote prosperity.

I wish him the best of luck on his many pursuits.


Tea Culture
I’ve spent the summer in Yunnan, in southwest China. Yunnan is a special place with abundant rice fields, tea farms, and mountains. It’s (arguably) the birthplace of tea and is the most culturally diverse region in China.
I am here to source teas for my fledgling company. My time’s been split between rural areas on the borders of Vietnam, Laos, and Burma and the capital, Kunming. This is the quick run-down of what I’m doing – bypass all middlemen and find teas from the most rugged regions of China. These teas come straight from farmers and are usually picked by ethnic minorities in areas that the British deemed “too wild” to colonize. These teas lack brand recognition and are widely ignored in China – they would never make it to the tea markets of Beijing or Shanghai. However, these teas are beautiful with their own stories. I’ve run a ton of chemistry experiments on tea over the past two years and eliminate cognitive bias by sourcing not only on taste, but also based on actual health/cognitive benefits. After a summer of ups and downs, I have legally sourced four teas: a full leaf white tea from Dehong, a rolled green tea (with an absurdly high level of theanine and polyphenols) from Menglian, a golden black tea from Menglian, and a yellow tea (the only one produced in Yunnan, to the best of my knowledge) from Simao.
Tea culture is special. Each time I come to China, I realize how little I actually know and that is beautiful. But I’ve encountered my fair share of difficulties. My Mandarin isn’t great. I went a month in the remote areas without speaking English, which was lonely. Export and FDA requirements both on the Chinese and American side are insane. The supply chain from small farm on the Burmese border -> Kunming -> Shenzhen -> Hong Kong -> Boston has been a nightmare to organize. My living conditions are often spartan, I’m currently living in a 10 person dorm, but I don’t really mind it. There’s a reason why virtually every American tea company buys from middle men and wholesalers, but that’s also the reason why there is opportunity in tea to help farmers who otherwise lack the means to export .
It’s been a long summer, and I am incredibly grateful for every farmer, tea shop owner, and export specialist who has helped me to get to this point. I have no idea where I would be without the new friends I’ve made. There is still more to finalize on the American customs side, but the tea should arrive in America in September. Be on the lookout.

Welcome to Yunnan


I will be spending the summer working with tea farmers in Yunnan, China. The goal of this project is to export premium loose leaf teas that have never before left Yunnan. Yunnan is undoubtedly the most culturally diverse region in China with over 30 recognized ethnic minority groups and languages. Yunnan is the birthplace of tea, and tea culture flourishes here. Unfortunately, the regulatory and financial requirements of exporting makes it virtually impossible for small-scale tea farmers to ever export. Though these teas are some of the best in the world, they can never be enjoyed outside of China. These teas could fetch much higher prices internationally than domestically, making exporting a tremendous opportunity for farmers living at the poverty line.

This is my third tea focused trip to Yunnan. Over the last few years, I have developed relationships in the region and will work with farming co-operatives, tea masters, and Chinese regulatory agencies to export these teas to America for the first time. Yunnan is famous for its aged, fermented Pu-er tea but also has wonderful but lesser known green, black, and white teas. My goal is to help farmers export one variety of each of these teas.

This is an exciting but intimidating project. There are many logistical and regulatory challenges to work through to make this vision a reality. I will need to depend on community partners and friends as it would be impossible to do this on my own. Finally, I study Mandarin but am not fluent. Negotiating in Chinese will certainly be tough, but I am up for the challenge.

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