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Wrong book led to turning new leaf

Updated: 2013-12-30 07:45
By Chen Yingqun ( China Daily)

Wrong book led to turning new leaf
Joe d'Armenia founded a tea processing company in Wuyuan and sells organic tea in more than 40 nations and regions. [Photo / China Daily]

Many expats come to Wuyuan county in the northeast corner of Jiangxi province as tea tourists, but Joe d'Armenia is the only one who has taken root there, working directly with farmers in Xitou village at his organic tea factory.

It all started 17 years ago when he bought the wrong book at New York airport.

"I thought I bought a thriller about murder, mystery, exciting detectives and things like that, but it was about green tea," says the 69-year-old Englishman.

D'Armenia, who studied economics at the University of London, spent all his working life in marketing, first at the multinational consumer goods company Unilever Plc for 10 years before helping with the Olympic Games for the next 20.

It was a serendipitous moment when he mistakenly came across the tea book. He was retired and thinking about what to do next. You could say he turned a new leaf.

D'Armenia became interested in green tea's purported cancer and heart disease prevention qualities mentioned in the book. He carried out some research on the green-tea market in the United Kingdom and Germany and discovered that although its clean taste is very suitable to Western palates, there was no organic product available.

He then decided to go to China to find quality organic tea. In 1997 at the Canton Fair, he met Yu Guangzhong, president of Wuyuan Xitou Organic Tea Co Ltd, who took him to Wuyuan county.

At that time, Wuyuan's tea industry was facing a difficult time. Because it had been exporting through other companies and under other names, it didn't have a famous brand and people knew little about the area or its market.

"I was the first foreigner to get organic tea directly, so they were excited when I came," d'Armenia recalls.

"Wuyuan had a unique product but no direct access to the international market. My company had access to that market but had no experience or knowledge of the product. We needed each other."

D'Armenia's local company, Wuyuan High Mountain Tea Co Ltd, now works with 690 farmers in the county, where his factory blends and packs the final product. His tea sells in more than 40 nations and regions, including the United States and South Africa.

"The fastest growing market now is outside Europe," he says. Two years ago the company entered Australia and has seen an annual growth of about 15 percent. But d'Armenia says he is not aiming for quick growth. Instead, he wants his business to retain the human touch.

Although he lives much of the time in a small cottage on the outskirts of London, d'Armenia says: "The farmers are our farmers, who live next door to us. Our business is built on trust; we trust farmers and they trust us. We have very good relationships."

Yu Guangzhong says d'Armenia was also a pioneer in bringing the Fairtrade concept to Wuyuan to improve farmers' lives and incomes.

His company joined Fairtrade International, an organization that works to secure a better deal for farmers and workers. Every year, the farmers' cooperative gains millions of yuan in subsidies from the organization. Other companies are now following in his footsteps.