It was 5 years ago in July 2017, when we with Tomas first wandered into the fern jungles that later became our Mandikori and Renegade plantations. On one hand, it feels like the 5 longest years of my life. There are so many memories and stories I have picked up from those years, that there would probably be enough material for a couple of books. On the other hand, the time has flown… days, weeks and months just pass by, as we always try to save the day somehow. It's not that having everything stable and organized in our life makes us happy and satisfied. Sometimes we feel the luckiest when we are stretched to the limit. Sometimes we might want to cry from exhaustion or irritation, but looking back to those moments after some years, we feel grateful for those experiences.
Our experience as tea farmers in Georgia has been anything but a smooth ride. If we would have somehow known in advance how long it would take to achieve some kind of stability and how much this whole journey would push us out of our comfort zone, I hardly believe that we would have dared to step on this path. Luckily, you are always full of optimism and energy when you start a new journey and as you probably recognize there are risks involved, you think that you would be able to deal with them. And it is good to have this trait in human nature, because otherwise life would be dull and many great ideas would never come to life.
Am I unhappy that we became the Renegades 5 years ago? No. I still enjoy very much what we are doing and what we have accomplished so far. And when it gets hard, I remind myself, that everything must be looked at from a perspective and nothing worthwhile can be obtained easily. I am quite sure, that when I look back on those five years in the future, I will think about them as one of the best in my life. Despite the shitstorms that we have had to endure, despite the challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable.
So, how to make sense of those 5 years and what to conclude?
Lucky or unlucky?
When we were brainstorming and making the business plan 5 years ago, we made a list of things that could become fatal for our project. Those were the known unknowns and it included questions like: "What if the tea does not start to grow after the rehabilitation?" or "What if the Georgian tea or the plantations we choose do not have the potential for a high-quality product?". The most critical one was probably "What if nobody cares and we can't find a market for our teas?". Luckily none of those big fatal risks, that we were afraid of five years ago, materialized. Instead, we have been hit with unknown unknowns - numerous "small" problems and challenges every year that hit us by surprise and disrupt the plans that are anyway on the edge. Covid pandemic and a complete collapse of the tourism market, a local protest that close the key road to our plantations for months, wild swings in local currency rates, anecdotal difficulties sending the tea from Georgia and getting the required materials to Georgia, washed away roads and fights with workers who want to decide if people from the other village are allowed to work in our plantation or not.
I have thought many times about how would you understand if you are lucky or unlucky? Should we feel lucky that our Renegade project is still alive or are we unlucky to have been close to packing our bags several times? Class half full or half empty? Probably, our class is still half full, because at the start I thought that the likelihood of getting to year 5 is certainly less than 50%.
Money, money, money…
To build up a functioning tea farm from scratch, you need to put in a lot of money. We of course knew that, but we were still remarkably blue-eyed back in 2017… The constant race with the empty bank account started already in the first season when we had to build and equip the factory and deal with the weeds on the fields that were furiously fighting back our efforts to suppress them somehow. And once we started to gain the upper hand with our fight with weeds, we understood that we got seriously wrong the time it takes to get those plantations back to full strength. During the second season we had 30+ people on the fields on an average day, but produced less than 500 kg of tea. To our justification, during the study phase, we did talk with many people in Georgia who had experience with tea and the general wisdom was that we should reach 70-80% of the normal productivity in the 4th year or so. Well, we are now in season 5 and we have still not reached 50%.
Luckily our customers have been our backers and incredibly strong support system since day one and it is only thanks to you that we are still in business. As a new loss-making company, it is very difficult to get financing from banks and most of the local support and grant programs are directed at the local entrepreneurs. Not foreign investors, who assumably should have plenty of money themselves… This year we are finally close to the tipping point where the income from sales would cover the operating costs, but we are still taking it day by day and sometimes it seems that it is indeed darkest before dawn…
Well, regardless of the challenges, there are also things that can be unequivocally put to the column of "positives". We did our first crowdfunding campaign and sold the first kilos of tea when we had not yet produced a single gram and we will be forever grateful to those brave people who supported us back in 2018. Now, just 4 years later we have many specialised tea shops and tea enthusiasts as our regular customers.
Our single batch approach means that we have excellent, good and also average batches as specific conditions of the given season and harvest day put their mark on the outcome. But despite the small variations, it seems that our customers embrace the approach and appreciate the transparency it brings. We produce 20 different teas and each one of them has some fans, who think that exactly this specific tea is one of the best in the world. It has gone exactly how we hoped it would be 5 years ago. At least something goes according to the plan. :)
By the way, people who are visiting us often ask - how do you become a tea master? Well, there is a simple 4-step approach that can be used - 1. Read/think/study - 2. Do - 3. Evaluate - 4. Repeat. It is a fool-proof concept that can be used on almost all skills, with one critical precondition - you have to have the internal will and motivation. So far, we have made 500+ experimental batches to learn about our terroir and different processing methods and we continue testing all the time. This is how you become a tea master.
Wow… how to put it into words? I think it is fair to say that during those years Georgia has both elevated our spirit and also disappointed us. It has created many positive memories and also some painful ones. There are things we miss when we are away from Georgia and there are things we hate when we are here. Probably the same can be said about every country where you live. Overall, I never planned to sever my ties with Estonia completely and move to Georgia, and those 5 years have not changed my perspective. It took a couple of seasons to settle in and make sense of the local style and customs. It took longer to get to the point that our living and working conditions are satisfactory and do not create stress on a daily basis. I think today I have finally found some balance here for myself.
I love the Georgian nature. I admire how helpful and warm can Georgians be when you are in trouble. I appreciate the joyful approach to life and to the daily struggles here.
But there is also the other side I sometimes struggle to deal with. Emotions are never in short supply and instead of looking at every situation individually and trying to find the best solution, there are often a myriad of unwritten rules and traditions that guide the process. Things never go as you expect - the solution might come much faster than you expect or take ages. Reliance on social traditions results sometimes in duplicity, as open and honest communication is suppressed by stereotypes and customs. As an introvert from the slightly phlegmatic and down-to-Earth Estonia, life here is occasionally short-circuiting my thinking process. Luckily, you can always find a bottle of good local wine to restore the calm.
All in all...
5 years of the Renegade project are behind us. We are no longer looked at as a bunch of renegades who suffer a heavy form of early middle-age crisis (some of us are still under 30). We are tea farmers. We are failing forward, step by step. At the end of the day, life is a collection of experiences and I would not change those 5 years’ worth of experiences for anything. And now, in the middle of our fifth season (and the wettest summer we have seen yet) I am waiting for the damn rain to end and at the same time looking forward to the next 5 years. Somehow I am sure they will be as interesting and intense as the previous ones and I appreciate the challenge. Game on!