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Episodes > Season 3 Episode 21

Nepal Tea Collective Hit Subscribe podcast cover

How Nepal Tea Collective provides an immersive customer experience

Pratik Rijal, COO @ Nepal Tea Collective

What's in this episode?

On this episode we’re chatting with Pratik Rijal, COO of Nepal Tea Collective, a social enterprise that distributes certified organic teas from Nepal while uplifting the livelihoods of the farmers and empowering their second generations through educational scholarships.

We chatted with Pratik about the family history of the company and the transformative growth on the surrounding community the very first tree bush had. Pratik also shares with us the immersive experience they provide their customers through QR codes to let consumers know the stories and people behind their tea purchase.

Lastly, Pratik tells us about their social change initiative, the Nepal Tea Foundation, which gives back to their community of farmers through education, empowerment and impact.

There’s a lot to get to so let’s get started, Pratik thank you so much for joining us.

Connect with Pratik on LinkedIn. Check out Nepal Tea Collective.

Episode transcript

Scott Meiklejohn: Pratik, thank you so much for joining us.

Pratik Rijal: Thanks for having me over, Scotty.

Scott Meiklejohn: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about Nepal Tea Collective?

Pratik Rijal: Got it. Yeah, I'm Pratik Rijal, I'm the third generation tea producer from Nepal. Nepal Tea Collective, I'm the co-founder and COO of Nepal Tea Collective. So, I handle everything related to operations and wholesale side of things. Nepal Tea Collective brings in teas directly from the tea farmers out in Nepal, and then distributes it out here in the US.

Scott Meiklejohn: Could you share with us this great story that you told me last time about the Nepal Tea Collective? I think, you know the one I'm talking about.

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. Yes, definitely. So, to get into the story of Nepal Tea Collective, we need to go a few decades before. So, this is the story of a 15 year old kid, and then this takes place out in 1960s. So, this 15 year old kid gets a chance to visit Sikkim, which is in India. So, on his way from Sikkim to our Eastern part of Nepal, he gets a chance to visit Darjeeling. Darjeeling at that time, was massively producing tea. So, there were tea gardens all over the place. So, this 15 year old kid sees that with the help of tea, the community out there, they had a good quality of life. They had infrastructures like electricity, good drinking water. And then, he saw that children's were going to schools. So, at that moment, he reflected back to his village, right? So, when reflecting back, he saw that his village didn't have any electricity at that time, no transportation, nothing.

Pratik Rijal: So, he goes back to his village and at this time, it was [inaudible 00:01:51] in Nepali. So, what that means, is elderly in the villages made decision about the community and everything. So, he pitches this idea of starting a tea garden out in his community. And then, the villagers laughs at this 15 year old kid, telling him that, "Teas are only grown in India and business is only done by British people." So, not losing hope, this 15 year old kid goes back to his house. And then, on his backyard, he plants few tea bushes, a typical tea bush takes about four years to mature. So, once after four years, when the tea leaves were finally maturing, the tea farmers, everybody were in awe. And then, were like, "Okay, let's start a tea garden." So, at that time in 1980s, there were 100 farmers who pulled their unused lands to start the first organic tea garden in Nepal.

Pratik Rijal: So, that 15 year old kid is my grandfather and the person who helped to plant the tea bush is my grandmother. So, now looking back at it, 40 years later, what we can see that the community has transformed so much. There's education for children, there are good infrastructure, roads, and everything. And then, with the help of the Legacy Tea Garden out there, what we do is we provide all of our farmers with free housing and accommodation. At the same time, we provide their children with scholarship programs. Up until now, we have about 2,400 kids that have passed through our scholarship umbrella to pursue education, right? So, it is just amazing to see what this single leaf has done to the community in Eastern part of Nepal. Now, fast forward 2016, my uncle, who is the second generation, he went back to Nepal. He came to the US out in 2011, I believe.

Pratik Rijal: And then, he came here to be a CPA, right? And then, he always says this, that four years of liberal arts college killed the CPA in him. Just because, during that time, it was a very small school. So, he had to come up with opportunities to make things happen. So, during his school days, what he did was, he used to take people out to Nepal to do some social impact projects. And then, he really loved it. In 2015, Nepal was struck with 7.8 magnitude earthquake. So, what happened during that time, was he got to see the reality of what was happening on the ground itself. He went to the Eastern part where the tea garden is, and then he saw how the lives of the tea farmers were impacted by the earthquake, as well as big shipments that were about to go out to Europe were stopped, just because of the political unreached out there.

Pratik Rijal: And then, to take matters into his own hands, he started the first tea bar out in Nepal, just to get into the tea industry and immerse himself into the tea industry, learn about it. Once he did that, he got all the education and the knowledge that was needed. And then, he realized that the wholesalers, they were buying these teas at a lowest price possible, and then selling it at a premium price out here. So, he believed that this was not fair. So, he started Nepal Tea Collective out in the US in 2016, where we bring teas directly from these producers. And we distribute out here to all of our consumers.

Scott Meiklejohn: I remember you sharing in our pre-call, the farmers were earning less than $2 a day, while the middle men are just making millions off their hard work.

Pratik Rijal: Yes, it is crazy to think that farmers who put in all the hard work-

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah.

Pratik Rijal: And the care that goes into maturing that tea leaves-

Scott Meiklejohn: Yup.

Pratik Rijal: They're earning less than $2 a day. And then, that's just not fair for these farmers. So, what we do, is we reinvest 1% of the top-line profit back to the farmers, so that they can get education on how to do organic farming for organic certification fees, because organic certification fees are just so expensive, right? And then, with our expertise on this of 40 years, we really have been able to help these farmers.

Scott Meiklejohn: So, now let's bring it all around. That was your uncle, that's the second generation. Now, let's go to the third generation, yourself. Where you ended up at Wall Street. Can you tell us about your journey to Nepal Tea Collective?

Pratik Rijal: Yeah, it's very interesting. I came in 2014 to the US, to pursue my bachelor's degree in finance. My dream had always been to wear a suit and tie, have a cup of coffee in my hand and a newspaper, and then go to work. When I came to the college, I knew what I wanted to achieve in life. So, it was internship working at a good bank, right? So, I did everything that a person would do to achieve those dreams. So, in my sophomore year of college, I started working full-time for a bank. And then, it was just amazing right before graduation, I landed a good job in the securities industry, so that was awesome. So, at that time, I don't know if age plays a massive role, but in my mid 20s, what I was realizing was, yes, I am making a decent living out from the finance industry, but am I making any impact? Right?

Scott Meiklejohn: Mmm-hmm.

Pratik Rijal: So, that really bothered me. And then, I was always looking for opportunity where I can have an impact to the community, and then see the results right before my eyes. So, at that time, this is 2021. Nishchal was looking for someone with whom he can work to expand the business. And then, for me, since 2016, I was passively involved in the tea industry, I was helping Nishchal with tea fairs. And then, when I was talking to these clients, and then the consumers, right? It all came natural to me. I was talking about the tea garden where I've been. And then, I was talking about my family's tea garden. So, it was just so natural.

Pratik Rijal: So, I decided maybe, this is the perfect opportunity where I'm having a real impact to the farmers out in Nepal. And then, for the consumers, I'm bringing them teas directly from the tea garden, the freshest teas, right? So, I decided to quit my job. And then, there's a story to it. The day I decided that I'm going to quit my job, my manager promoted me. It was an awkward conversation for sure. But, at the same time, I was ready to leave the finance industry behind, and then get into something that's more impactful. Yeah, that's my story.

Scott Meiklejohn: Well, let's even go back. Tell me what your birthday is. This is a hilarious coincidence. What's on your birthday?

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. So, basically after being in the industry for about three months, I realized that I was born on International Tea Day, which is May 21st, and then it's upcoming. So, I believe I was born into the culture of tea, but at the same time, I think being in the tea industry was meant to be for me, right?

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah. Yeah, I remember you quoted your grandfather who said, "It's very easy to get into the industry. It's very difficult to get out of it."

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. So, in my family, we have three of my aunts are in the industry itself. And then, one of my uncles, right? I'm the first one from the third generation side of things who joined the industry. So, every time someone joins the industry, my grandfather always says that. And then, I believe what he means, is you are impacting so many farmers, and then so many lives that, yes, it's easy to get into the industry, because you can see we are making a real impact. But, when you get out of it, have you ever thought about what happens to those farmers? Because, now after being actively involved for a year, I can't imagine the impact that I've made out there, right? And then, when I leave it, when I'm off to like another industry, I can't imagine what my farmer's life would look like.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah.

Pratik Rijal: So, it's very difficult. And then, I'm finally deciphering what he's saying.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yup.

Pratik Rijal: And then, it's very interesting.

Scott Meiklejohn: Speaking of that, seeing the farmers, connecting them, I'd love to talk about... One of my favorite things that you guys are doing, is these QR codes you are supplying. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. So, on every packaging, what we have, is a small QR code. And when you scan it, you can see the journey of the tea. The day the tea leaves were plucked, right? The elevation of the tea garden, the varieties of tea bushes that are in the tea garden. And then, the date it was imported, the date it was processed and each and every details. On the same side, because it is all data, we wanted to humanize the process. So, what you can see is the faces of the farmers who made your tea possible, right? So, you can see the journey of tea, from the day it was plucked, to the day it reaches your cup. There is a background story on why that started as well. So, I'm going to take you back to 2017. So, during 2017, what we did was immersive tea tours.

Pratik Rijal: So, every year what we do, is we take people from here, and then we take them back to our farm. And then, we ask them to pay us, so that they can work for us, like a farmer for a week.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love it.

Pratik Rijal: So, we took these people, and then it was just amazing to see how much they loved getting that immersive experience. And our tea tours are very different. You go to the tea garden, and then you can actually do anything you want. There's no restrictions, right? So, we had a group of four, or five people at that time in 2017. And then, four of them wanted to learn the technical side of things. And then, we had one customer named Tracy, who was a chef in Napa Valley. So, she just wanted to roam around the garden. So, they were doing their tea tasting and all those things.

Pratik Rijal: And then, after the tea tasting completed, they were looking for Tracy. And then, Tracy was nowhere to be found, right? It's a huge tea garden. So, Nischal, he goes to the kitchen, and then he sees this amazing scene where Tracy is sitting down on the floor, she's rolling up bread, and then she's handing that to our cook, Pushpa, and then Pushpa is putting it out in the tandoor. And then, they are making a dinner for all the people out in the tea garden. And now, Pushpa does not speak English at all.

Scott Meiklejohn: Mmm-hmm.

Pratik Rijal: Tracy does not speak Nepali at all.

Scott Meiklejohn: Mmm-hmm.

Pratik Rijal: They were communicating in sign language, giggling, and then they were just enjoying themselves, right? So, the moment Tracy was about to head back, they were crying their eyes out. And then-

Scott Meiklejohn: Wow.

Pratik Rijal: Tracy, she handed her bangles to Pushpa. And then, Pushpa, our farmer who does not have anything to give back, she handed her hair clip to Tracy. And then, at that moment we realized, "Okay, we are onto something." And then-

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah.

Pratik Rijal: Everyone can't afford to go out there to our tea garden to get that immersive experience, maybe having a QR code on back of the packaging, it's going to help you know where the tea is coming from, who the people are behind making these tees. So, that's why we implemented the QR code. And now, every time Tracy sips a cup of tea, she's going to remember Pushpa.

Scott Meiklejohn: Mmm-hmm.

Pratik Rijal: And every time Pushpa is helping out to make these amazing teas, now she knows who her customers are, right? So, it is just amazing to see what we can do via giving them that experience. And then, that's the reason why we have the QR code, just so that people can appreciate what they're drinking.

Scott Meiklejohn: We talk so much community here at Recharge, community of customers. But, I think that is so cool and so immersive to do, not just your community of customers, but your community of customers, distributors, farmers, connecting them all together. You even talked about... I'd love you to share, because that's the customers seeing the farmers, but you talked about last year, starting these virtual taste testings. And what-

Pratik Rijal: Yes.

Scott Meiklejohn: One of your farmers said about that. I thought that was just so fascinating, bewildering, remarkable.

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. So, last year we were trying to revamp our subscription side of things. So, what we did was... Also, up until 2021, we were working with our family farm, bringing teas from there. So, starting September 2021, we were bringing teas from three different farms. So, what we wanted to do, was give customers much more than just tea, right? Because, there are a lot of tea subscription companies out in the US, but we wanted to give experience. So, every month what we do, is we have a virtual tea tasting sessions, where we bring in a producer of a specific tea, and then we connect them with consumers. And then, the consumers can ask anything, the story of the producer, how they got into the tea industry, or they can go into technicality of how to brew the teas, or what are the notes that we are getting?

Pratik Rijal: So, after the completion of our first virtual tea tasting session, Sarod, who was a tea blogger and now is a tea maker. He said that, "I've been producing teas for almost 30 years now, never had a chance to know who my customers were. Thank you guys for giving me a platform to connect with them." And then, that was the most heartwarming conversation that I've had. And that is what keeps me going to do more. And then, to keep connecting these people with our producer farmers.

Scott Meiklejohn: I just think that's such a cool story. Yeah, I remember you saying, just to think of working for 30 years and never seeing the faces of your customers. Just shipping it out and never seeing their face is wild.

Pratik Rijal: Exactly. And then, I believe most of the tea gardens, it works in the same way, where the tea makers never get a chance to know who their customers are. If it's a local market, maybe, but international market, not at all. And most of the teas that are produced in Nepal are exported. So, these tea makers never have an opportunity to have that connection.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah. You mentioned it a bit before there, subscriptions. I know it started before you officially joined, but could you tell us a little bit about the evolution of your subscription program?

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. Shout out to [Susrik 00:17:48] who started the idea of subscription back in 2016. So, at that point, from what I remember, we had three variants. And then, it was based on three personas of customers. And then, customers choose what their persona were. And then, we would send them teas based on that. And then, we were using a completely different subscription platform at that time and it wasn't that great at all. So, when I joined in 2021, we were revamping most of the stuff, existing stuff. So, we thought, "We are adding three different forms. So, now we will have much more different varieties." Because, up until then, we had 14 different teas in our collection. And then, we were just rotating those teas, and then sending it out to our customers for the subscription. Now, what we have done and what these farmers have made it possible, is we ask them to make a small invoice of just five kilos, which is almost 10 pounds.

Pratik Rijal: And then, four farms, send us six different teas. So, that's 24. So, now customers can experience different teas every month from the same origin, but different parts of Nepal. So, that's how we started to revamp our new subscription. And then, yeah, Recharge has been a great platform, for us to do so. Because, it is the powerhouse of all the subscription apps. That I'm going to say, because the user interface that Recharge has, it's very user-friendly on the customer side, as well as the merchant side. We are able to see all the analytics, all the data that is needed to make an informed decision. At the same time, customers are able to use the platform, if they want to skip an order, they can do it on their own. And then, all those things. And then, there's also this thing where it asks for reason for cancellation, right? And then, if they are like, "I have too many teas." If they say that, we can just skip it, rather than canceling the whole subscription.

Pratik Rijal: So, it's just that Recharge has integration with all of these other amazing platforms, like Clearview and all those things, which makes it possible for a small company like us, to just have everything streamlined.

Scott Meiklejohn: Oh, we really appreciate that. Yeah, those win back flows are great too, instead of canceling out, right? Yeah, sometimes people just have too much product. So, just skip.

Pratik Rijal: Exactly. I have so many customers who just emailed me and they're like, "I think many teas, can we cancel the subscription?" And then, I can actually say them that, "Okay you have an option to actually pause the subscription for a while, before starting it out again."

Scott Meiklejohn: We've seen great success with that. I know sometimes, it seems scary to offer that to your customers. You could skip this, you could pause, but the proof is in the data, they stay longer, increases their LTV, so yeah. I'm glad that, that's working for you guys.

Pratik Rijal: Yup.

Scott Meiklejohn: I really want to focus on one of our last topics here. You mentioned it off the top, but I'd be remiss if we didn't talk about the Nepal Tea Foundation.

Pratik Rijal: Mm.

Scott Meiklejohn: Specifically, you talked about, I just love this quote. Let me pull it up here. "Education is so important. We've seen education change generations." So, could you tell us a little bit about the Nepal Tea Foundation?

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. And then, I'm definitely going to touch on the education side of things, before I dive into the Nepal Tea Foundation. Me, talking to you here right now, it was only possible, because of the single plant, Camellia sinensis. If my grandfather hadn't started a tea garden back then, my mother would not have an opportunity to educate herself, and then know the value of education. And then, give me that life, where I could pursue education out in the US. So, education is very important. I am the third generation of a tea farmer, so I know that better than anyone. So, when my grandfather started the tea garden, he always had the mission, and then the values was to empower our farmers, provide the next generation with the opportunity that previous generations did not have.

Pratik Rijal: With the same mission and value, what I always want to say, is we are not a typical tea retailer, or a wholesaler. We believe that tea has the capability to change the world and is a catalyst for social change. So, we started Nepal Tea... All of our social impact projects, up until 2019, was done through our legacy Tea Farm. In 2019, we started Nepal Tea Foundation just to streamline and make it more efficient, so that we have an entity out in the US, itself. So, what we do is there's three major parts, it's education, empowerment, and impact. On the education side of things, we have few different projects. So, up until now, we were just giving scholarships, to tea farmers' children. Now, what we have made possible, is you can sponsor a kid for $11 a month, so you can sponsor their education, extracurriculars, books, materials, and then it's just like adopting a child, virtually, for their education, right?

Pratik Rijal: And then, we also partnered with one of our clients in the UK, and then raised about $10,000 to build a school out in our tea garden itself. On the other side, we have empowerment. So, few projects that have been really successful for us, is the cow bank project. So, with the help of cow bank project, what we do is we donate a cow to a tea farmer, so that they can get milk out of it, and then sell different dairy products. In one condition, and then the condition is that, you got to give the calf to somebody else. Once there is a calf to [inaudible 00:23:50]-

Scott Meiklejohn: Wow. Yeah.

Pratik Rijal: So, it's very sustainable, so that everyone gets an opportunity to have a cow, and then get that additional income out of it. Also, all of our full-time farmers, they receive free housing. And then, we have a co-operative that buys basic necessities, like oil, salt, rice, everything in bulk. And then, we distribute it out to our farmers in a subsidized price. And then, the impact side of project that we recently launched after COVID hit, was the Farmer's Emergency Fund. So, Eastern part of Nepal, if you need to go to a hospital where our tea garden is, it takes you a while to get to the hospital. There are small clinics, 30 minutes down the road, but going to a big hospital, it's just a long off a walk. So, what we established was a Farmer's Emergency Fund to cover all the medical expenses, if somebody contracts COVID. And at the same time, if there's someone who has COVID, and then they are not able to work, we reimbursed their daily wage, so that they do not lose any income.

Pratik Rijal: So, those are few things that we do from our foundation. And then, right now we have about five amazing people who are working to make the foundation better every day and working towards impacting these farmers, producers, and kids out in Nepal.

Scott Meiklejohn: All of that is just so wonderful. I just love hearing about it. I'm going to throw you a curve ball for our last question. I don't think I prepped you on this, but we ask every single guest and that is, what physical products do you, yourself, subscribe to? Do you have anything coming to your door aside from Nepal Tea Collective, on the regular?

Pratik Rijal: I do have Harry's Razor-

Scott Meiklejohn: Yup.

Pratik Rijal: That I subscribe to. And then, coffee.

Scott Meiklejohn: Of course.

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. Even though, I'm a tea guy, I need that burning cup of coffee, always. That, and then I do subscribe to other tea companies-

Scott Meiklejohn: Great.

Pratik Rijal: Just to receive... Because, the more you try, the more your palette grows. So, I love trying new tea. So, I do subscribe to various other tea companies just to see what they're doing, and then how their teas are.

Scott Meiklejohn: That's a great idea. Well, Pratik, thank you so much for joining us on Hit Subscribe and we wish you and the Nepal Tea Collective the best of luck for the rest of the year.

Pratik Rijal: Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time. And then, thank you for inviting me over. Much appreciated.

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