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.