Tea with Significance
Nathanael Foo, the founder of threeonesix Tea is different from a lot of the people we talk to here in that his business didn’t start with an idea or a passion for food but rather a social impact model and a place. Nat had taken a three month volunteering trip learning about human trafficking in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, worked in an anti-human-trafficking organisation in San Francisco, and completed an MBA in Copenhagen, and found himself in Northern Thailand with a list of possible industries and an idea for an impact model. Nat paid a local to drive him around Northern Thailand and help translate as they hopped around farms looking for inspiration.
Nat stumbled upon a farm which met all of his needs: A USDA certified organic Tea farm set up with the mission to create safe, dignified employment for local people. We spoke to Nat about creating a direct trade business model which gives consumers access to creating positive change, and all while enjoying quality tea at a great price.
“I know the names of the pickers, I’ve plucked some of the tea myself , and most importantly I’ve had meals with tea workers . I don't tell them what to do, I don't tell them what price to charge me, all I need to do is support them in doing what they do well - produce good quality tea through a safe and dignified manner”.
The threeonesix Model
Despite their many similarities, the production process between tea and coffee are very different. Coffee cherries are plucked, delivered to a mill, fermented, dried, sold and roasted. It makes sense for people along the supply chain to take some of the profit as they're contributing to the value of the product. In tea, however, everything from growing and picking the leaves, to delivering the rolled up, oxidised, roasted teas Nat sells, is performed on the farm. “The farmers are doing 95% of the work, they're not just experts in agronomy , but in roasting and how to oxidise the tea, what's left is just marketing, sales and logistics.” said Nat.
But even though the tea is already finished, the farm and tea pickers often sees less than 1% of the profit made in the sale of their teas. The remainder is eaten up by tea auction houses, blenders, buying agents and retailers. "It's probably not surprising then that a huge amount of people in the tea industry don't make enough money to meet their basic needs.” said Nat.
"It's easier to produce a product without as much ethical consideration, and to donate profits away. We make sure that every single step leaves a positive net social impact. We can keep profits because the social impact has already been made. We've supported safe and dignified employment opportunities, and we can still donate profits back into the farm as a trade premium or for particular projects like a school in the community. We have that possibility.”
threeonesix’s ethical considerations extend even to Perth, where Nat is careful to price his tea to be as accessible as it can be. “I think it’s quite unjust that people of a lower social economic means can't support socially minded products. Ethical products quite often come with a premium, and to help this I price match comparable tea companies as much as I can.” Said Nat.
The specific details of Nat’s business venture in Northern Thailand didn’t fully form until he tried the tea from the farm from which he now sources. He was not yet particularly involved in tea, but tried their product and decided that he had to work with them, he is now diving head first into the world of tea.
“With a good enough product you can get really nerdy with it.” Said Nat, "There are so many different ways of doing it and presenting it, and I still have so much to learn about tea even after the last year and a half really studying it"
The threeonesix range consists of eight teas ranging from Oolong, green tea, black tea and herbal tea. Whilst the range is modest, each tea is of exceptional quality and many would surprise even seasoned tea drinkers. The English Breakfast, for example, does not have any tannin, the cottony, puckering feeling present in black tea in teabags. The GABA Oolong is of particular note, a truly unique and complex taste profile, it is processed in nitrogen, the tea preserves the GABA neurotransmitter which is present in tea and rice, but is usually destroyed through oxidation. GABA is helpful in concentration, and so the tea pairs well with working or studying.
"The quality is good enough that we don’t need to colour or flavour artificially. The Peppermint, for example is real peppermint without oils or flavourings, which gives it a balanced and naturally sweet profile which a lot of people find quite surprising” Said Nat.
Nat and his staff package and label the tea personally, which gives them the chance to see the quality of the tea themselves, and means they can pull out any leaves which might not have rolled up or a twig which may have fallen in, where in a larger operation these may be ignored, and end up in the final product.
"It’s literally Farm, to me, to you”
“My passion is to eradicate inequality and injustice," Said Nat, "it's quite broad, and quite universal, exploitation and human trafficking have always made me feel strongly, and there's a lot of that in things like tea.”
Nat chose Northern Thailand knowing that it bordered Burma and Laos, two developing nations from which people often enter Thailand as economic refugees— People leaving their home country to escape living in poverty. In addition to these people are a number of ‘Stateless' people living in Thailand, who are not biologically Thai but have lived in Thailand for generations, these stateless people are allowed to live in the land but don't have the rights of a Thai Person. They don't have rights to health care or education and they can only look for employment within the district they were born in.
"The sad thing is that when there is a high supply of vulnerable people, traffickers see that as a big advantage for cheap and free labour. They take people and exploit them in many industries including seafood and the sex industry.” Said Nat, “The more you learn about a social problem, the less you act out of guilt or benevolence and the more you want to study it further, to look into initiatives that target upstream factors and create long-term change. I thought why don't we go in that area and support somebody who is already impassioned about providing safe, dignified employment to people who are sociologically vulnerable.”
Nat was lucky enough to find a farm who’s values aligned with his own, and which was producing excellent tea. Not only does the farm grow and process all of it’s tea, but it also grows food for the workers and other crops to compliment tea: "It’s a testament to their thoughtfulness, all tea comes from the same plant, and the harvest and growing of tea only goes for four months of the year, but they’ve started to grow other things which compliment their tea during the downtime like jasmine, ginger, peppermint and osmanthus."
Perth is home for Nat, but Perth also lies in the Indo-Pacific region, a region where two thirds of people in modern slavery are found. It is in the same time zone as many of these nations, and has free trade agreements with many. After feeling “not so much homesick, but certainly sun-sick" while living in Copenhagen, there was no question that Nat would return to Perth to create threeonesix . The company launched last August and is, currently in it’s pilot phase. "Perth is a hard place to sell right now. There’s a lack of expendable cash and the mining bust, and most people don't drink high quality tea, but people do want to feel connected to what they buy, and Australians have values which drive us to support meaningful causes,” Nat Told us, "The closer you bring the people don't the hard work to you, the consumer, the more you start to empathise and care for them, and the more likely you are to change your consumer behaviour."
Nat says he did prove a few expectations, and discovered that Tea has got to be packaged nicely. His focus now is on educating Perth on his brand, his tea, and the impact they can deliver with something as seemingly simple as buying and drinking quality tea.
“Some think it's a marketing scam. I can understand that - many companies use social good spin to differentiate, inevitably causing customers to become skeptical. This doesn't perturb me, because I know I'm not doing that. I've spent five years of my life learning and working in the field, and now am confident that I know what I'm talking about. We stand for safe and dignified work which reverses exploitation, and a great, healthy, high quality drink. We’re hoping we can educate people on both aspects."