Down to the last drop

THE SUN may be about to set on one the oldest industries in Malaysia.

Having a hard time sourcing unskilled workers, the tea plantation business, especially in Cameron Highlands, is going through a rough patch.

The tea industry was first established in Cameron Highlands in the 1920s when the Federal Experimental Station (now known as Malaysian Agriculture Research & Development Centre or Mardi) was built.

Researchers in this centre found that the climate was too cold and moist to grow coffee beans thus tea bushes were tried instead. It was the start of a multi-million ringgit industry.

Early days

The business in Malaysia was dominated by two major players when it first started — BOH plantations and The Bharat Group.

Both companies grew from humble beginnings and have firmly established themselves as global players in the industry.

Today, BOH Plantations is one of the leading tea growers in Malaysia and has four tea plantations — Boh, Sungei Palas and Fairlie situated in Cameron Highlands; and Bukit Cheeding in Selangor — covering a total land area of 1,200ha.

According to the company’s website, with a production capacity approaching 3,000kg per hectare, BOH Plantation produces four million kilogrammes of tea annually, which translates to about 5.5 million cups per day. This represents about 70% of all tea produced in Malaysia.

Established by an Englishman by the name of J.A. Russell, BOH also dominates the domestic retail market. While maintaining its market position locally, the company has also expanded to foreign markets.

Today BOH exports its brand of prime grade teas to various countries including the United States, United Arab Emirates, Japan, Singapore and Brunei.

Meawhile, The Bharat Group, has greatly advanced since its creation in 1933 by Shuparshad Bansal Agarwal.

An astonishing 70,000kg of green tea leaves is handpicked each week across 642ha of Bharat’s plantation — the equivalent of 3,143 cups of tea at retail outlets across Malaysia.

But after three generations of growth, can the planters keep the momentum going amid economic and weather uncertainties, topped by the shortage of labour? Coming to an end?

According to Bharat Group chief executive officer Datuk Kesav Kumar Agarwal, the next three years will be the toughest times for planters.

“For the last 10 years, we have been having trouble with manpower. Previously there were four major players in Cameron Highlands, but today there are only two. In Malaysia, four tea plantation estates have closed down. They have moved to (planting) oil palm,” said Kesav. More labour intensive

It was understood that oil palm estates only require four workers for every 40ha, while a tea plantation would require 40 workers for the same area.

The clearly frustrated Kesav explains that the labour shortage started in 1982, but only became chronic in the last decade. He attributes this to inconsistent policies created by the authorities.

“Most countries have stopped exporting unskilled workers. The government needs to look at the labour policy for unskilled workers. I recommend that tea plantations should be able to bring their own workers from overseas (regardless of nationality). We are an industry that is very dependant on labour. If we do not sort this issue out, we will be done within the next three years” said Kesav.

As the fourth generation of Agrawals enter the family business, many changes are on the horizon. The company recently embarked on a rebranding exercise to make the company more youthful and lifestyle-orientated.

Bharat has opened three Cameron Valley kopitiams in the prime locations.

“We have outlets in Bangsar, KLCC and Publika. We are looking at retail for a niche market catering to the middle and upper class. The Starbucks model is what we are striving for,” said Kesav.

According to market studies and published reports, Starbucks has had notable success in identifying top retailing sites for its stores. The coffee company has the best real estate team in the coffee-bar industry and a sophisticated system that enables it to identify not only the most attractive individual city blocks but also the exact store location that is best.

The company’s site location track record is so good that as of 1997 it had closed only two of the 1,500 sites it has opened.

Starbucks’ management looks upon each store as a billboard for the company and as a contributor to building the company’s brand and image.

Each detail was scrutinised to enhance the mood and ambience of the store, to make sure everything signals “best in class” and that it reflects the personality of the community and the neighbourhood.

Walk into any one of Cameron Valley’s tea houses and you will get the same impression.

As the fourth generation of planters make their way into the family business, one can only wonder what the future holds them as they are torn between industry issues and the way forward.

The tea tree Camellia Sinensis, a relative of the flowering Camellia plant, originated from China and spread to northeastern region of India, near the Chinese border around Assam.

A hardy tree, it grows well in the lowlands and also in high-lands.

Partial to slightly acidic soil and hilly terrain for drainage, and tro-pical to cool subtropical climates that are sunny with abundant rainfall, it can survive for well over a hundred years, depending on its maintenance.

Tea is cultivated in nurseries from seeds of its delicate white flower or cuttings from selected trees.

After three years, the trees destined for the production of tea are transplanted to neat rows in the fields. Careful pruning to form table top bushes maintained at a height of about three feet facilitates harvesting of the young “flushes”, shoots consisting of a bud and two leaves. A hardy plant, tea requires little or no fertilising and pest control, though it gives in sometimes to cold blights in the very wet season.

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