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Healthy Soil. Healthy Mankind. Interview with Rajah Banerjee.

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Rajah Banerjee is a renowned tea producer and environmentalist who has significantly influenced the Darjeeling tea region with his sustainable production methods and social reforms. In 1993, he was the first tea producer in the world to receive Demeter certification for biodynamic cultivation. In 2014, his tea set a world record for the most expensive tea ever sold. In 2018 he founded a new company called “Rimpocha” which aims for organic tea production and empowerment of women. In this interview he explains what is behind the company's slogan: Healthy Soil. Healthy Mankind.

The following interview with Rajah Banerjee from Rimpocha was conducted on 6 June 2023 by Scarlett Eckert, Managing Director of Intalcon Foundation.

Scarlett: Rajah, can you please tell us about the beginnings of Rimpocha?

Rajah: The inception of Rimpocha already began when I was young, with a life-altering experience I had during a horse ride at my ancestral tea estate, Makaibari. It was during this ride that I had a transformative experience, where I felt a deep connection with nature. This encounter left an indelible mark on me, but it took me 10 years to understand what happened to me. In the end, the message I got was: Plant Trees. And that’s what I did.

Planting trees finally evolved into a holistic initiative that encompassed various aspects of sustainable agriculture, namely organic tea production and woman empowerment. The connection I felt with nature propelled me to explore alternative approaches such as biodynamics, permaculture, and the use of cow dung as a valuable resource for enhancing soil health. Besides that, I had worked mainly with women and have seen huge successes. They work very hard to secure the future of their family and make the best investment choices, by investing into the education and nutrition of their children as well as in the well-being of the community. By distributing cows to women in tea estate villages, we have not only provided them with a sustainable livelihood through additional food and income, but also helped them lead more self-determined lives. Normally they had to get up at 3am to collect firewood for cooking, but with the biogas from the cow dung we were able to generate renewable energy and at the same time produce organic fertiliser for tea cultivation. It is just magic! This circular approach led us to pioneer organics in the global tea industry.

We proved that eco agriculture is economically viable. Already in the 80s we proved that we receive premiums for our organic and biodynamic teas and save on fertiliser costs at the same time. We converted the entire Darjeeling tea growing area to follow our success. I am very proud to say that we have inspired the Darjeeling district and the neighbouring state of Sikkim to convert to organic as well. The entire area of Ilam in neighbouring Nepal has also been converted to organic through our influence.

Scarlett: This is a very fascinating story. What led to the foundation of Rimpocha?

Rajah: Unfortunately, in 2017 my ancestral house, which was the go-to house in the district of Darjeeling and was built over 160 years ago, burned down.  It was a beautiful wood house and it burnt in two hours. Four generations worth of memorabilia, art collections, antique collections, libraries, manuscripts, all went up in flames. Everybody was feeling very sorry for me, but I was quite happy in a way. I felt that I'm no more the guardian of my ancestral sins. So, I said: “Let’s do something else, that we've learned over the years. And what is that?”

In July 2018, Rimpocha was born as a reincarnated Tea Avatar, inspired by the Buddhist concept of Rinpoche, a term that describes reincarnations, such as the Dalai Lama.

“Don’t just give people fish but rather teach them how to fish!”

Scarlett: How does your business model differ from traditional farming practices in India?

Rajah: We started mentoring villages directly with the mentality of “Don’t just give people fish but rather teach them how to fish!” By now, we have adopted five villages and five artisanal tea factories or studios, that we teach how to produce high-quality organic tea on their own terms. And here the tea is the end-product of a chain of food security, as opposed to a conventional tea estate. An industrialised tea estate is a village that is dependent on one monocultural crop. And that has nothing to do with food security. Our approach is the other way around. You have your crops, your cereals, your vegetables, your fruit, and on the fallow land, which we upgrade, we grow the tea in a very small way. So, the tea is the icing on the cake!

Scarlett: Can you please share more about the impact of Rimpocha's initiatives?

Rajah: I'm sure you hear ghastly stories about India which are mostly negative. But our villages are so affluent you can't imagine. The atmosphere is so gorgeous, just the most beautiful areas in the world, the Darjeeling mountains. So Rimpochas initiative is, “Healthy Soil. Healthy Mankind”. It is the use of permaculture practices, such as mulching and the use of biodynamic cow dung, to enhance the soil. If you enliven the dung with biodynamic practices and applied it to your fields and your farms, the entire farm turns into an ever-evolving dynamic organism that puts living food on the table. And that's big news! Putting living food on the table means achieving immediate equality. When you empower women, provide food security, and teach them how to make a high-quality product like organic tea that enriches the natural environment instead of abusing it - that's what I call "living food".

By adopting sustainable practices, we have revitalized the environment, conserved biodiversity, and promoted a sense of ecological awareness and responsibility. And with that we are addressing the challenges that humanity is facing today such as stress and anxiety. All of it. Because all issues of humanity are about balance. Living food put you in a different state of perspective as you have a holistic view of agriculture and live in general. The positive impact extends beyond tea cultivation and into the broader community. The ripple effects of our initiatives have manifested in improved livelihoods, enhanced food security, and the establishment of a more resilient and sustainable future for the communities involved.

I've done a little study in India. The possibility of producing sustainably produced high quality living foods in the next 10 years will be about $15 trillion. But more important, you create a win-win situation for all: from soil micro-organisms and the fungi from below the ground, as well as for earthworms and animals, plants that grow above the soil and then on to the empowerment of women. In India’s hinterland there are millions of people, that are quite marginalised, especially the women. This must change. If we can empower women through Rimpochas initiatives5, we have a different world looking at us. And I think that our initiatives are going to be the beacon torch holders, for this issue.

Scarlett: Thank you for sharing so much valuable information. I am curious how you managed to become profitable despite your pioneering role?

Rajah: When I decided to embark on the path of planting trees, my parents were thrilled to see me dedicate myself to the tea estate. However, the focus soon shifted to the question of how we can make the soil healthy. One initiative was through mulching and recreating the leaf fall mulch, that takes centuries in a natural forest, but can be achieved in a fraction of time with human creativity. This process turns into topsoil, enriching the land for cultivation. Together with some of the initiatives already mentioned, this led to a series of interconnected actions where one step naturally led to the next. It has been an organic development driven by our commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainable practices. Profitability was not the focus, but a by-product of our holistic approach and commitment to positive impact.

At the time, we were not aware that our actions were in line with the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). When we realised, they were, it was a natural progression for us to align ourselves with the SDGs. I was never afraid of being a pioneer because my actions were rooted in a deep love and connection with the land. It was a continuous development, an unfolding of a deeper purpose. My forthcoming book, which will be published in the next few months, will provide further insights.

Many people solely focus on the numbers in the balance sheet, but I have a different perspective. I believe in the flavor of the balance sheet of life.
Rajah Banerjee

Scarlett: I am looking forward to reading more about it soon. Can you please tell us what it means to you to run a successful business?

Rajah: To me running a successful business encompasses more than just economic success. It demands a holistic approach. While profitability is essential, it should not be pursued at the expense of other factors. You cannot be an island of prosperity, in a sea of unhappiness. Many people solely focus on the numbers in the balance sheet, but I have a different perspective. I believe in favouring the balance sheet of life.

To build a successful business model, we must embrace three essential factors: Economy to meet our needs and wants, politics to connect with people and foster social relationships, and last but not least a strong focus on the environment. If you follow this principle, I think you have a very, very successful business model. It cannot be an imbalanced attitude of just making money. Because when you die, you're not going to carry it up to wherever you go with it. Recycle it. That's the key to a successful business model. And that's why I am convinced that the concept of living food, will be the next big thing. People want living food, which is good for their health and good for the environment.

Great leadership can only come if women are empowered.

Scarlett: Following up on this - What is your vision for the future of Rimpocha?

Rajah: Our vision for Rimpocha is to continue expanding our sustainable practices and promoting their adoption on a global scale. We aspire to inspire and empower tea estates worldwide to embrace organic and biodynamic agriculture, thereby fostering a more sustainable and ecologically conscious tea industry. Because I've seen what we can do from a tea estate perspective for Darjeeling and I want to do it for all the 686,000 villages that are here in India, for a start. Then take it across to Africa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, South America.

I'd like to see a move in the subconscious, I'd like to see a more equitable distribution of wealth. And that means that I want gender equality. If we have gender equality, then I think India can be the organic food bowl of the world, because of the diversity of climates that we have. India is a very affluent country, but with extremely poor leadership. Great leadership can only come if women are empowered. All you need is civic spirit, and for that you need woman equality. It's a simple solution, really.

My dream is for women to come together and create a platform for humanity to enter a new era of peace, prosperity, and radiance. I envision a future where the resources of our planet are respected and utilized responsibly. By encouraging everyone, including children, to actively participate in the cultivation of trees and the nurturing of the environment, we can create a world where waste is transformed into wealth, and where every individual plays a role in sustainable practices.

Scarlett: Thank you very much for sharing your insights, Rajah. It has been an honour to have this conversation with you.

Rajah: Thank you! One last thing - for you and all the readers: I encourage everyone to grow a simple sapling from the fruit you eat, or plant a tree, and send me a picture a year later. Together, we can make a real difference if everybody just starts growing plants and trees.