The coronavirus outbreak is causing a rare stir in the usually staid global tea market, with labour lockdowns stifling supplies just as millions in lockdown drive up demand for the beverage known for its immunity-boosting properties.
Five countries – China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Vietnam – account for 82% of global tea exports, but strict restrictions on movement to contain the coronavirus pandemic have already disrupted the key leaf-picking season, delayed some shipments by about a month and triggered a spike in prices.
Fewer pickers combined with colder-than-normal temperatures last month are expected to trim output in top producer China this year, while production in No.2 grower India and Sri Lanka have also been impacted by labour and weather issues.
India’s output is likely to drop by 120 million kgs or 9% in 2020 as the lockdown initially forced plantations to suspend plucking during the opening harvest – the prized first flush – and then operate with about half the workforce, said Prabhat Bezboruah, chairman of India’s Tea Board.
The International Tea Committee (ITC) estimates India’s 2020 exports will fall 7%.
The bright spot is Kenya, the world’s top exporter, which has seen minimal interruption to harvest since March and, according to ITC, may see domestic output rise by 15% this year.
In Sri Lanka, tea production was down nearly a quarter due to an earlier drought, and the virus is now affecting exports, said Jayampathy Molligoda, chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board.
Turkey, the world’s top tea consumer per capita, is usually self-sufficient in production but faces its own labour shortage.
Local producers say they usually rely on migrant workers from areas like Georgia and Azerbaijan, but that this year they will have to use inexperienced locals which may cut supplies. In India, plantations have struggled to collect the first flush crop in Darjeeling Hills, known for the world’s most expensive tea, as India ordered its 1.3 billion people indoors until May 3 so its modest public health system does not collapse under the weight of infections.
Production from the second flush is set to drop more than 10%, and later flushes will not compensate for those losses, said Kaushik Basu, secretary of the Darjeeling Tea Association.
A shortage of truckers amid travel restrictions is also delaying movement to auctions and ports, said Nazrana Ahmed, chairman of Assam Tea Planters Association (ATPA).
“Very few trucks are available, and they are taking a week instead of three days to transport tea” to Kolkata in east India from Assam in the country’s northeast, she added.
Less labour also means more bush overgrowth, which will hit later crop potential, tea garden owner Rajib Barooah said.
These problems have created a shortage of fresh supplies and lifted last season’s crop prices to a rare premium, said Kalyan Sundaram, secretary of the Calcutta Tea Traders’ Association.
Read more via Reuters