Smita Satiani: Elevating Tea-Drinking, One Sip at a Time
Hi everyone! I’m Spiffy, your favorite interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making an impact on UN SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. Today I’m going to learn about the tea industry and how Alaya Tea is finding ways to improve the lives of tea farmers and the tea that sits in your mug! Join me as I welcome Smita Satiani, co-founder of Alaya Tea. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Welcome, Smita, that tea smells lovely! Can you tell me what challenges you’re addressing through your start-up, Alaya Tea?
Smita: It’s great to be here today, Spiffy. Alaya Tea is an Indian, women-owned loose leaf tea company that sources teas directly from people and planet-friendly farms in India. Having grown up in tea drinking households, my co-founder Esha Chhabra and I wanted to build a different kind of tea company. Alaya’s mission is to invest in Indian farmers who are pioneering the organic and regenerative movement, celebrate women that are the backbone of the tea industry, and elevate tea-drinking culture in the United States.
Spiffy: I’m curious to hear more! What motivated you to build this different kind of tea company?
Smita: Esha and I both grew up in South-Asian households where tea was a daily ritual, a time to slow down, relax, and reconnect with the people around us. We wanted to share this experience with our American colleagues and friends who had grown up in a more coffee-based culture. Plus, we saw that eco and worker-friendly tea wasn't readily available in the US. Most of the tea brands we saw used excess packaging, plastic-based tea bags, and were sourcing from middlemen, not directly from estates and farms. We saw an opportunity to address all these nuances with Alaya.
Spiffy: I didn’t realize there were so many things to consider when taking tea from farm to table. How else are you working to make the world a more equitable place?
Smita: Well, Spiffy, we work directly with tea estates and farmers at the base of the Himalayas. These are organizations that are practicing biodynamic and regenerative farming because they see agriculture as a way to address climate change. We’re excited to partner with these growers to improve soil health, help promote biodiversity, and encourage a new generation of farming in India that’s kinder to the land and to the people who till it. Plus, we’ve decided to have zero-plastic packaging. All of our products are in compostable pouches and our shipping mailers are biodegradable. We hope to be contributing to a plastic-free future.
Spiffy: Every ounce helps! Are there any new intaitives you’re particularly excited about?
Smita: In 2022, we’re excited to work with a new group of farmers. Nestled in the Himalayas, an enterprising community of women farmers have been growing mountain herbs—like nettle, chamomile, and mint. Their work is centered around a non-profit that provides healthcare and education to women in rural communities. Given that so many men leave for the cities to get work, these women are often farming on their own while trying to tend to their households. We’re excited to partner with them to bring more of their herbs to the market and support an incredible regenerative economy led by women.
Spiffy: I’m always curious to hear how entrepreneurs deal with failure. What about you? Can you share about an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up?
Smita: We launched Alaya two years ago, and would have never imagined the last 1.5 years would be in a pandemic. While people have been drinking lots of tea at home, Covid-19 has rocked supply chains and shipping overseas, and this has caused huge disruptions in the speed and cost of our tea shipments from India. Our shipping costs increased four times this last year, and our turnaround times have seen delays by months. This certainly has made it harder to plan as a small business, and have the capital necessary to adapt to these stark changes. We are slowly getting back on track, and have absolutely learned patience, planning ahead (as much as we can), and shifting where necessary.
Spiffy: What is something unexpected you’ve learned recently?
Smita: Only 10-15% of items that go to recycling centers in the US end up getting recycled. And black plastics (for example, lids on disposable coffee cups) rarely get recycled because waste sorting systems can’t recognize black pigments, so it ends up in the landfill. The challenges of recycling are why we wanted to find a compostable packaging solution for Alaya.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Smita: Much of the world’s food still comes from smallholder farmers. If we can support more farmers who are transforming their ways, moving away from mono-crops, heavy pesticide, and insecticide use, and investing in nature and her ways, we can be part of a greener economy. Businesses can play a role in this by choosing to support suppliers and vendors who are willing to rethink industries. Consumers can play an even bigger role by choosing how to spend their money to support these types of businesses.
Spiffy: I’m going to second that by asking for a second cup of your tea, Smita. Thanks for sitting down to tell me about the ways you’re committed to improving the tea industry and the lives of the farmers who work so hard to make this delicious cuppa! It’s been an honor.
Smita Satiani is an Indian-Pakistani-American entrepreneur and the co-founder of Alaya Tea. For the last four years, she has also worked on climate technology projects at X, Alphabet's Moonshot Factory. Previously, she worked in the Obama Administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy, and at Ashoka, a global fund for social entrepreneurs. Smita’s work has been featured at the MIT Media Lab, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal. She is also an adjunct instructor at Carnegie Mellon University. (First published on the Ladderworks website on September 30, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.