My Soviet childhood and Renegade Tea Estate
Despite the optimistic promises and numerous websites to promote investment in different African countries, it became quickly clear, that the reality is still quite different. Rwanda might rank high in different global rankings for ease of doing business, but our repeated attempts to contact different agencies and organizations via e-mails, phones or social media resulted in almost no response at all. The situation was even worse with several other countries in Africa and Asia, with which we tried to initiate some dialogue. Maybe we would have been more successful, had we gone there physically and spent a few months on the spot, but at the time it was a bit too much to ask. So, there it might have all ended, as many dreams that hit some stumbling stones from the very beginning. Tea Estate in Rwanda was not meant to be... but by the time of this realization the idea about our own Tea Estate had gotten too deep into our veins and we did not want to give up.
I grew up in the Soviet Union. I didn’t care much about politics during my first 10 childhood years and my personal freedom at the time was mostly restricted by my parents, not the state. So, being a Soviet child was not a huge deal for me, as I didn’t have any comparison anyway.
Looking back to this time now, there were still some random peculiarities that I remember for whatever reasons and that seem odd now. For example, I vividly recall the oily military canned food rations that were put on sale in big containers, as the "best before" approached. I also remember that we drove to smaller villages in the countryside and went shopping, as some goods were more readily available there (as there was an overall shortage of certain goods, they were running out faster in bigger cities). I also remember the ever-emptying shelves in shops towards the last years of the "Empire" and trips with our VAZ Zhiguli car. The car that later became mine, as I went to university, then already in the independent Republic of Estonian. One other thing I remember, is the Georgian tea, which my father was always drinking at home during the Soviet years, probably because it was the only tea that was available at the time. So, after our newly risen interest in the tea industry, it didn’t take long for Georgia to appear on our radar too, as we dived deeper into the tea world.
Georgian tea from Soviet times. Picture from georgiaabout.com.
When I first read about what had happened to the Georgian tea industry during the last 30 years, it was difficult to comprehend or even believe. It's not unusual to find a story about a region, where a certain industry was once dominant, but then declined over the years until it died. However, what happened in Georgia is beyond that. In the year of 1990, the tea industry employed almost 150 000 people and produced 130 000 tons of tea. 5 years later the whole sector had been wiped out. Literally. In 1995 the total production had dropped to less than 10 000 tons and it has never recovered. How did it happen? It seems that there was a perfect storm – civil war, loss of traditional markets after the end of the Soviet Union and economic collapse in post-communist Georgia all played its role. As there were no buyers for the Georgian tea, the huge factories were closed and hundreds of plantations – big and small – were abandoned. Over the years, the plantations were gradually overgrown by weed and trees. Later many were rooted out and replaced with hazelnuts or corn.
A Tea Plantation in Georgia in the early 1900s – picture by Sergeii Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Picture from georgiaabout.com.
We were however equally surprised to learn, that tea bushes are some sturdy things with deep roots and despite this 30-year neglect, there are still thousands of hectares of old tea fields that can be rehabilitated and that could be productive for years to come. So, in 2016 the Georgian government had launched an initiative, to get at least some of those old plantations restored. We approached it with caution and had many questions and doubts as the whole story about tea plantations that have been abandoned for a quarter of a century seemed a bit odd. However, I had been to Georgia twice and came back with some really positive emotions from my short trips, so it was as an additional motivation to look into it. Could it be a Georgian Tea Estate, instead of Rwandan? Luckily, we found out that differently from their African colleagues, Georgian officials were responsive and keen to talk to us.So, we decided to take a closer look and flew to Georgia... The story of our first visit you can find here.