John J

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2018
This description of John J's work was prepared when John J was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .


John envisions an industry where small-scale tea farmers look at each other as partners to collaborate with, as opposed to competitors, so they can all participate and benefit equitably from the tea supply chain.

The New Idea

John is addressing the vulnerability of tea producers at the lower level of the value chain by getting them to self organize in order to access emerging markets, and in turn, enable them to have a larger share of the profits as they deserve. John is challenging the common competitive thinking amongst farmers, instead enabling them to become collaborators. His approach encourages farmers to build teams and team leaders, who work together to create Tea Producer Companies. These teams of farmers are built on galvanising the entrepreneurial capabilities among farmer communities, who in turn, mobilize other groups. John is changing the tea supply chain by influencing policy and creating a new model for small tea growers to organize themselves, manufacture and sell tea to markets directly by reversing the order of value chain ownership and management.

His organization, Grassroots Tea Corporation, involves the participation of and ownership by tea farmers at all stages of its operation. From the outset, at the primary level, farmers participate in and own the production process because they are made shareholders in the Producer Company. In fact, the framework of the Producer Company ensures that only ‘producers’ can be shareholders of the entity and all shareholders have equal voting right irrespective of the number of shares they hold in the Company.

The Tea Board of India is a state agency that was set up in 1954 to promote and regulate the manufacturing of tea in India, but has historically been built on the expertise of dealing with large-scale and industrial estate system of tea production in India and less of on the critical knowledge required to account for the needs of STGs (Small Tea Growers). John recognized the need for STGs to have a voice and facilitated the formation of the Confederation of Small Tea Growers Association (CISTA), an apex body of small tea growers in India. Through CISTA, he encouraged the farmers to self organize for policy advocacy, to fight for the rights of STGs and for them to have a critical voice in the industry by being a part of the Board of Directors at the Tea Board of India. As per the Indian Tea Act of 1953—India’s central legislation seeking to regulate the tea industry in the country—there were no legal provisions enabling commercial production by small farmers. This changed in June 2017, when John, working together with CISTA and STGs across India, moved the Tea Board to approve the setting-up of micro and mini-factories. In January 2017 John established Grassroots Tea Corporation to empower farmers through the process of setting up micro and mini processing units by giving them access to larger financial institutions for loans. John is now establishing robust marketing systems of the tea produced by the Tea Producing Companies, through the agency of Grassroots Tea Corporation.

The Problem

A significant quantity of tea in India is grown by small and marginal farmers. According to the Tea Board of India, Small Tea Growers (STGs) contributed 36% of the tea produced in India in 2015—this number is expected to grow to 80% in the next 5 years. Approximately, over 250,000 STGs exist in India, of which a significant proportion of who belongs to Dalit (lower caste) and indigenous communities. Located mostly in remote and hilly terrains, STG’s have low monthly incomes and rely on subsistence farming to survive. Growers experience great fluctuation in the price that they receive from the Bought Leaf Factories. Per kilogram of green leaf, STGs receive payment ranging from Rs.4 to Rs.22 in West Bengal and Rs.7 to Rs.22 in Assam. Their difficulties are further compounded by the lack of transparency in the actual price realised.

The Small Tea Growers are so vulnerable to exploitation because the policy so far did not allow them to set up independent small processing units, because of which they were compelled to sell their tea to middlemen, called leaf agents. Since an STG only has access to such leaf agents—at the ground level, practically only to one leaf agent—these middle men exploit the farmers by paying them very low prices for their green leaf. The leaf agents become their advisors in terms of pesticide usage and act as moneylenders, charging high interest rates. As a result, the STGs are separated from the process of manufacturing and distribution to the retail market. These farming communities are victims of uninformed agricultural practices, including ignorance about inputs, plant nurturing, plucking and leaf carrying methods.

A primary reason behind the inability of the reason STGs have not been able to improve their situation is the lack of direct access to markets. So far we have seen a supply chain that is controlled by global brands and retailers. As a result of this, STG’s are presently unable to influence the tea value chain beyond the production of green leaves. Moreover, STGs lacked representation at the Tea Board of India till 2008, though there were desperate attempts by some farmer associations to get the government to fulfil the needs of their own communities.

The Strategy

John, in his role as the Executive Director of the Centre for Education and Communication, began his work with STGs by organizing farmers into Primary Producer Societies (PPS), which enables them to take up sustainable cultivation of tea. Through collective trading of tea leaves, STGs were able to directly negotiate with tea estates and Bought Leaf Factories—thereby eliminating the leaf agents in the supply chain and access markets directly. John works with the farmers in the PPSs to build their capacities to improve quality, build local institutions, negotiate with firms up in the value chain (leaf processing units) for a fairer value, build managerial capacities and make collective policy interventions. This approach was supported by the Tea Board of India, the statutory body under the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, of the Government of India, which governs the cultivation, manufacture and trade of tea. PPSs gave STGs a functional framework to aggregate their resources, remove middle-men from the supply chain, increase their bargaining capacities with BLF, and report a higher household income.

Between 2011-2016, John facilitated the formation of 598 Primary Producer Societies (PPSs), covering 40,000 Small Tea Growers who cultivated tea in about 82,200 acres of land across 418 villages in Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.

Yet, STGs are unable to influence the tea value chain beyond the production of green leaves. Growers experience great fluctuation in the price and moreover, there is lack of transparency in the actual price realized at the manufacturing and retail segments of tea value chain. While John recognized that collectivization was bringing STGs better-realized prices, he wanted a 360-degree role for the farmers in their participation in the value chain. He realized a need to introduce a policy to change to allow STGs to set up independent mini and micro tea leaf processing units, which would enable them to own the tea value chain from top to bottom. For the policy to change, STGs from across the country would have to collectivize to have a strong voice. Towards this, John facilitated the formation of the Confederation of Small Tea Growers Association (CISTA), an apex body of small tea growers in India.

Through CISTA, John enabled the farmers to work on policy intervention, to ask for the rights of STGs and for them to be a part of the Board of Directors at the Tea Board of India. In 2008, for the first time, an STG was invited to be a board member of the Tea Board of India because they recognized the need for STGs rights to be addressed. Key issues taken up by CISTA include setting up of Small Tea Growers’ Directorate within the Tea Board of India, seeking a provision of insurance for small tea farmers and ensuring remunerative price for small tea growers. In June 2017, a result of the collective efforts, the Tea Board approved the proposal to the set-up of commercial tea processing micro and mini-factories, which introduced through a strategic amendment to the Tea Marketing Control Oder of 2003 under the Tea Act, 1953.

In January 2017 John, along with Dominic D’Souza and Kukhol Boro set up Grassroots Tea Corporation, private limited company, which functions as the exclusive marketing arm of the Tea Producer Companies and facilitates the process of setting up their micro manufacturing units. John’s approach was focused on building teams and team leaders, who collaborate to make a deeper change in the society. The exercise encourages tea farmers to participate in and take ownership of tea farmers at all stages of the operation. From the outset, at the primary level, the farmers participate in and own the production process because they are made shareholders in the Producer Company. In fact, the framework of the Producer Company ensures that only ‘producers’ can be shareholders of the entity and all shareholders have equal voting right irrespective of the number of shares they hold in the Company. Select farmers are given training in ‘management & administration’, ‘finance & accounting’ and ‘operations in the factory’ so that leadership mostly are from within the community. The certification for the tea being an organic product would be through the Participatory Guarantee System, which would augment not only the participation of all farmers in ensuring the supply of organic tea leaves but also the mutual accountability in the observance of standards. However, this would be subject to whether the National Centre of Organic Farming includes tea as an agricultural crop that is recognized for Participatory Guarantee System. The farmer’s participation and ownership of the process are safeguarded along with the vertical tea value chain – the manufacturing unit is owned by the farmers and the representatives of TPCs are in the Board of Directors of the Grassroots Tea Corporation, the marketing arm of the tea manufactured by the TPCs. The innovation lies in this participation and the ownership of tea farmers at all stages of cultivation, upending the standard setting, manufacture and marketing of tea. With the introduction of GTC and the institutions created for the implementation of Participatory Guarantee system, John is creating a linked and networked ensemble of micro and mini enterprises. He is working with tea machinery suppliers to create innovative designs for micro and mini units and is building an institutional support for STGs.

In Northeast of India, especially in Assam, tea has been a crop that survived along with other plants and crops. The plant was identified by the colonial invaders and converted into a commercial mono-crop cultivated in an industrial mode by destroying rich biodiversity. John is currently addressing this ecological danger in terms of food security for STGs by building scientific knowledge that is in sync with the current cultivation practices, translating this information to farmers, and through his model getting farmers to cultivate tea not as a mono-crop but as a part of diverse crops that respects biological diversity and sustainable food security.

Over the last seven years, 598 PPS have been formed reaching out to about 50,000 growers by the team of CEC. As a result, the income of STGs has risen by over 30% in India. Many STGs in India have opted for the environmentally friendly organic cultivation of tea as a result of this intervention. Nearly 15,000 farmers in India have started collective leaf trade, thus eliminating the leaf agents from the value chain and helping them realizing better prices. John has helped STGs across the country to set up seven mini-factories in Assam, Tripura, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, four of which obtaining institutional financial support to set up manufacturing units. In addition, He is also making sure that sustainable practices are used for harvesting and cultivation of tea. John is enabling them to manufacture and sell their tea directly either to big brands or to create their own.

John is also addressing the issue of food security, which arises out of the vulnerability of Tea being a cash crop by working with STG’s to diversify what they grow. Today Small Tea Growers (STGs) contribute to more than 36% of the tea produced in India. The STG’s share in tea production was 1.16% in 1999, which increased to 33.85% in 2015-16, and to 50% in 2017-18. In the next 5 years, the Tea Board of India has predicted that 80% tea production will be by STGs.

John is now focusing on establishing the robust marketing systems of the tea produced by the Tea Producer Companies, through the agency of Grassroots Tea Corporation. The Tea Producer Companies will produce organic tea observing social and environmental standards, which on the basis of mutual on mutual agreement, would be entirely purchased by Grassroots Tea Corporation and then would be sold to health-conscious tea consumers. The uniqueness of Grassroots Tea Corporation is that its Directors are representatives of Tea Producer Companies to ensure participation of farmers in the ownership and governance of the marketing company. Bilat Goyary, Sabin Narzary and Bijoy Boro are tea farmer representatives on the Board of Directors. Grassroots Tea Corporation will sell a bulk of the tea through third-party sales channels in the initial years. Simultaneously, Grassroots Tea Corporation will develop its own tea brand - equifarmtea which will be common for all Tea Producer Companies. The brand will ensure traceability and Grassroots Tea Corporation will engage in e-commerce and will explore social media for direct sales.

The Person

John grew up in Kerala in a Christian household that took faith seriously but not the institution of Church. Both his parents were government school teachers who were extremely driven towards towards their social responsibility to give back to their communities. Injustice highly disturbed John from a young age which came from his exposure to left and democratic political ideologies that swayed the political landscape of Kerala during his youth years. The radical re-interpretation of Christian faith from the perspective of the poor and the exploited was of a keen interest to him and he wanted to change the situation that caused poverty, inequality and injustice. John was a part of the political and student movement within the church where he redefined faith for other students through his lens of Jesus being a political leader and not a religious leader. He was a part of multiple social movements that were focused on informal labourers, which have deeply influenced his understand of the role of collaborative leadership. John could not come to terms with charity being the solution and because he believed it created an elated sense of otherness in those who were giving and a sense of dependence in those who were receiving. He played a critical role in setting up fishermen associations so they could collectively raise their voices against injustice and work together to creative alternative solutions to improve their conditions. He was a part of these movements during his graduation, postgraduate and PhD and while he was the Coordinator of Delhi Forum.

John began his work with STGs in 2008 while he was the executive director of CEC (Centre for Education and Communication) where he build capacity in local farmers to collectivize themselves and called them Primary Producer societies. Between April 2011 to April 2016, he scaled this intervention with the support of the European Commission, and created a recognition for STGs as producers in the value chain. John has been the executive director for the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), from December 1994 to May 2017. The immediate reason that got John attracted to the ‘tea’ sector was the reportage of starvation deaths from tea estates in West Bengal and Kerala in later 1990s. Under his leadership CEC undertook a series of investigative missions which let them to insight that the emergence of small tea growers was not a natural phenomenon from within, but something which was external and integral to the restructuring of tea value chain. He started Grassroot Tea Corporation in 2017 with the aim of giving farmers a 360-degree governance and participation in the cultivation, manufacturing, processing, and marketing of tea.