India is one of the largest tea producers globally, although over 70% of its tea is consumed domestically. Over the years, the Indian tea industry has grown to own many global tea brands and evolved as one of the world’s most technologically-equipped tea industries.
Recently, researchers of IIT Delhi, reported that tea might act as a potential therapeutic option against Covid-19 as it can destroy the protein structure of the virus. Research in Taiwan and China’s also suggests that black tea polyphenols are capable of inhibiting SARS Cov-2 replication.
Seeing the increasing popularity of tea amid the Covid-19 crisis, AgNext organized a webinar on ‘Transforming the tea businesses — Unlocking the power of Artificial Intelligence and data-driven technologies’ on 14 August. The webinar brought the tea business leaders on a single platform to discuss the tea industry’s current scenario and the need for technological intervention.
Tea solved Covid – Has Covid solved tea?
Joydeep Phukan, principal officer and secretary, Tea Research Association, India, was the first to tweet about the benefits of tea. He highlighted the benefits of tea, stating that the polyphenols found in black tea are excellent inhibitors in controlling both the Hep C virus and Covid-19.
Anoop Barooh of the Tea Research Association of India called for increased tea consumption during this pandemic. “If we dwell a little bit more on the health benefits of the tea, these health benefits are imparted because of the tea’s bioactive.”
Prabhat Bezboruah, chairman of the Tea Board of India, says on the beneficial effects of tea, “Green tea has entered the psyche of consumers as it is good for the health, but black tea has also shown benefits against viruses.”
On the other hand, he denies that there is any surge in the tea demand, “The prices have gone up due to supply shock and the output in India has come down a lot. Except for Sri Lanka and Nepal, we are far away from the tea growing areas. Transportation costs are also quite high.”
Highlighting the decline in supply this year, he says it will rebound next year, “I don’t think there will be any problems in meeting the demand if it goes up, the industry is well equipped to meet higher demand.”
Atul Rastogi, head of operations, Luxmi Tea, said that due to the pandemic, flushing patterns have changed. “The weather has been unkind, the first flush, and the second flush this year is effectively lost.” However, he is satisfied with the increased awareness of hygiene and sanitation, which are otherwise challenging to instill. “Crop loss prices have been supportive so far. The cost will be visible soon. I see from 13 to 15% crop loss this year that is going impact costs.”
Technology starts with ‘T’
The experts said tech interventions could help the industry generate more revenues even in the crisis scenario. Barooh explained that technology could be a game-changer for the tea industry. “We are working with the sustainability challenges faced by the industry. We keep a tab on new technologies, and bringing digitization is the need of the industry.” Digitizing tea farming by using technology to integrate financial and field level records of complete plantation activity and supply chain management is one solution.
“Smart tea farming combines IoT and AI to improve quality, production efficiency, and decreases the cost of production and the adverse effect on the environment.” Highlighting the need for precision in plantation, he suggests using smart tech, including cameras and drones in tea plantations for spraying and irrigation, moisture sensors, soil testing data to pinpoint requirements, and digital maps.
Siddharth Thard, the founder of Kadamba tea, suggested a digital-first approach. “There are three broad areas we need to cover with technology or digitalization in the tea industry – the first in the field, for sprays, weeding, and fertilizers; secondly, factory operations; and, the third is for connection with the market.”
According to him, tea leaf plucking is where technology could be used in a better way. Suggested the use of machine vision for tea plucking, he said, “At the factory level, there are two areas where technology can make a huge difference — withering and fermentation. Until now, these are decided by human touch, feel, and smell. We can use machine vision along with sensors and actuators to optimize the right level of wither. Similarly, with the fermentation as well.”
According to Rastogi, the improvement in quality will pay. “It depends on the right raw material; therefore, the larger focus is on plucking.” However, the training platform has to be strengthened if the industry chooses to adopt machine learning or automation for its operations.
Thard believes that machine vision, data sensors, and actuators have a considerable role to play. “If you see the full value chain of the tea business, some of the value lies in the field, some in the processing units, and some at the consumer end. We, as producers, fail to capture the value that lies at the consumer end. We can use data mining to reach out to consumers.”
A universal set of standards for maximum residue level (MRL) compliance, less chemical load on tea bushes, pest control, sustainability certifications, and better policy to boost exports were vital takeaways of the webinar.