4 months as a tea farmer in Georgia – per Aspera ad Astra!
The last 4 months have been everything I expected it to be. Those months have challenged me mentally and physically and for sure pushed my borders. It has been at times exhausting, but I have never had any regrets, not once. So, when I decided to accept a position as a temporary CEO of Nordica (Estonian national aviation group) two weeks ago, it was not because I missed the airconditioned office or would be giving up on tea farming. But before I explain this decision in more details, let's start from the beginning...
In a very broad picture, I think that Renegade Tea Estate project is going according to the plan. Of course, we hoped it would go easier and faster, but it’s fine. You always hope for the positive scenario and then you adjust as you go. There are many things to be truly happy about. Like the fact that tea is growing in most areas in our plantations and we have started small-scale harvesting – not really a commercial harvesting, but so that the bushes would mature and develop the proper form. Or that the reconstruction of our factory is going a bit slower than we hoped, but we have already managed to put in the machinery, that has been standing in the storage and tried how everything works. And of course, I would once more express gratitude to those people, who have read our story and decided to support us financially. Our Indiegogo campaign did not reach our target, but 80% is not a bad result and it gives us a lot more flexibility as we set ourselves up for next year.
Imagination vs the reality
But not everything has been as we expected or hoped for. I had a certain picture in my mind, how the tea farmer life would look like. For sure at least this year the reality has made many corrections to this picture as we push forward.
For example, I have had almost no time to learn more about tea farming and production. I thought I would go around in Georgia, learn what other tea producers are doing and how they work. Nope. Also, no time for study books or online materials, no time to refine the blueprints of our production system and product concept.
Where do the time and resource go then? Well, the lowest steps of “Maslow hierarchy” take every bit of resource our team has had – to keep basic things running. Initially, I was quite stressed about it and tried to push even harder to try to overcome all the bottlenecks. Over the weeks and months however, the reality started to set in – we need time. If we take it step by step, we will get to the finish line. But we cannot make tea to grow 2x faster. We cannot suddenly change the attitudes and realities that have developed over the 20 years.
Last year, when we were touring the Western Georgia and tried to find suitable tea plantations, people were really positive everywhere and encouraged us to proceed with our plans. They told, that since tea industry collapsed, there has been no work, no money in the villages and if we could start it again, everyone would be really happy and would come to work for us. As we have now learned, this was only partially true. Most people are still very happy and welcoming about our project, but over the months we understood, that while people in villages like the IDEA about themselves having a stable work, it doesn’t necessarily mean, that they actually want to work. It’s a bit like bragging with your friends about making a parachute jump. It’s different when you are actually up in the sky. People in villages have survived 20 years without going to work every day and they have adjusted to it. Every household has a few cows and pigs, a vegetable garden and small vineyard. Some small money that is needed for communal payments and clothes can be earned doing some occasional works. And people, while “dreaming” about work, are actually happy without it. Men from the village gather on a daily basis to play some domino or backgammon, sometimes there is a reason to celebrate something with wine and food...
It has been much easier for us to find workers for a few days to complete a specific task, but when we talk about regular daily work, many people just walk away. They worry about their households and probably about their domino battles too. And I don’t blame them. We don’t live to work; the goal is to feel good yourself. But we were not prepared for this and have spent a huge amount of energy just to keep things going, so our plantations would not be completely overtaken by weed again. Only now, in the middle of July, it seems, that we have finally managed to gather a stable team of workers in Renegade Estate and I don’t think it will be much easier in Mandikori.
Men sitting in Kutaisi. Photo: Tomi-Andre Piirmets.
Whatever time is left from plantations has been taken by building process. I remember quite well, how it was when our house in Estonia was built a few years ago. All the evenings and weekends we spent touring different shops. Starting with selecting the parquet for the floors and finishing with curtains and kitchen equipment. It’s not much different with tea factory – every second day there are decisions to be made – about the pump for the water, the material for the floor, where to order the windows and doors... the list goes on.
I’m sure, we will have other challenges next year, as we really start to focus on production and delivery systems, but I'm also confident, that it will be at least a bit less running and more thinking.
It has been said many times, that every start is difficult and its certainly true in most cases. I have been angry, tired, surprised, confused... and so have been the others in our team. But if you look back to those moments after some years, you often find that despite all the difficulties it was also great fun to start something from scratch. Hopefully the foundation we lay this year will be solid.
Back to the corporate world?
But as tea is growing and the factory being readied, I’ve personally returned to Estonia. Since the beginning of the last week, I have been back at the office in Tallinn, as a CEO of Estonian airline company Nordica. And although It’s a bridging position until a new long-term CEO will be found and not a permanent assignment, the fact remains, that only a few months ago I wrote about leaving corporate offices behind and now I have returned. 😀
When this proposal ended up on my table in early July, I was considering it for a few days and we also had some lengthy discussions within our team. It was not straight forward, but in the end, I decided to accept it. First thing was, that the timing fits with our schedule. As we are now approaching the end of summer and our factory will also be completed shortly, we will slow down a bit. And I don’t deny, that part of me was quite excited about this opportunity to return to airline business for a few months. Aviation is and will always be special for me. I started my career in aviation and even after I left, I continued to follow the industry. I didn’t expect to return to work there, but it was still with a fair bit of excitement to return to the very same building where I used to work 6 years as a fresh graduate in my twenties. And it's fair to say, that also the financial aspect played a role. As we are nurturing our plantations back to life, we are all living and investing from our savings. It was not once we discussed, that if some of us could find some interesting project-based job for winter months, it would be reasonable to consider.
To conclude – what a year! And it's only halfway through. Tea plantations, airplanes, pushing the borders. Bring it on!