Bina Nongthombam used to gather wild fruits and flowers and sell them at a local market in her home state of Manipur in northeast India.
But it was a tough way to make a living: “I used to spend the whole day in the market and was hardly able to make a decent living,” she says.
It was a way of life that had been in her family for generations,
But in 2018 one of her customers, impressed with her produce and attitude, offered her a job and her life changed.
Since then, she has been sourcing produce for Dweller Teas, a start-up with a focus on unusual and forgotten Indian plants and flowers that can be used in teas and infusions.
It is still a lot of work. Mrs Nongthombam starts early to visit villages for ingredients like Indian olive, roselle and sumac berries – some of these are grown by farmers and others are collected in the wild.
She takes buses to remote villages to scout for the produce she wants, and then returns later in a tuk-tuk or three-wheeled taxi to make the final purchases.
“Collecting wild fruits and flowers is very fulfilling for me. Since childhood we [have been] collecting these fruits, but other than people of northeast India, hardly anyone knew about them.”
Eli Yambem founded Dweller Teas in 2016 with $25,000 of her savings. She now has three cafes in Manipur’s state capital, Imphal.
Tea is one of the local strengths of the region, she says: “We also have an abundance of indigenous plants that are yet to be shared with the world and that can be sustainable”
“The traditional knowledge and memories associated with indigenous plants are slowly fading with each passing generation. I wanted to preserve the indigenous traditions, and share the hidden goodness and innovative flavours.”
One ingredient, the shrub the shrub Nongmangkha or Phlogocanthus thyrsiformis Ms Yambem distinctly remembers from her childhood.
“It is a traditional medicinal plant known by dwellers of Manipur for its antiviral properties. I remember my grandma would boil its leaves to help me with cough, cold, and fever.”
In case you were wondering, the Tea Board of India states that only products with a minimum of 70% tea leaves can actually call themselves teas.
That distinction does not trouble consumers much, as exotic and herbal infusions are the most dynamic part of the market.
“This is the space where there is the most excitement in the tea business,” says Tea Board chairman Prabhat Bezboruah.
It is a competitive business, he points out: “It’s a fact that most of these start-ups will close down soon after inception, but the few that survive have a shot at becoming the next unicorn [a company with a billion dollar valuation] given the huge popularity and product acceptance that tea has.”
So what is the key to success?
“The consumer is looking for a novel presentation of this traditional beverage. Being able to position one’s product exactly in this space and being able to fulfil the expectations aroused in the consumer’s mind will determine the success of the brand,” says Mr Bezboruah.
That is what husband and wife, Ranjit and Dolly Sharma Baruah are hoping for. They started their tea firm, Aromica, in 2018 and source tea from smaller plantations and then blend it with exotic plants and flowers, that are traditionally said to have health benefits.
The firm’s blends include ghost chilli and black tea, which they recommend for coughs and colds, and which they say has been selling well during the Covid pandemic.
Aromica also mixes butterfly pea flower with green tea, to create a blue-coloured, caffeine-free drink.
Such exotic blends appeal to health-conscious consumers who are buying products based on their perceived health benefits. Those are the shoppers that have powered the so-called “wellness industry”.
“The wellness sector is an up and coming sector and health drinks have an important place in this business,” says Mr Baruah.
“We thought, why not try and explore this market? as it gave us ample opportunities.”
The wellness sector is not particularly new and the established tea giants have also moved in, including Tata Tea – India’s second biggest tea brand.
“Consumers are more open to trying out new experiences and blends, and are choosing premium products,” says Tata, which has been investing in its Good Earth and Teapigs brands, as well as expanding the Tata range in India.
With bigger firms moving in, the smaller start-ups know they have to supply something different to stay ahead of their competitors.
Mrs Nongthombam hoped that means that a lifetime spent gathering wild produce will be useful for many years to come.
“It was a lucky day in the market when I met Elizabeth. She immediately knew my strength and hired me. Now I am paid and appreciated for my hard work. It’s been a turning point in my life.”