The Jamaican Teas story
The Jamaican Teas factory space in Three Miles, St Andrew. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)

HERBAL teas ready to be brewed straight out of a box in tea bags is a phenomenon Jamaicans have got used to chiefly in the last decade as much as bottled water in the last 20 years. Before, brewing what Jamaicans call “bush tea” would be done with freshly picked herbs, but the dried variety displayed daily on supermarket shelves with various brand names, owe much of their success in Jamaica to one company, Jamaican Teas. Here is the story behind a brand which spawned many others with great success.

John Mahfood, the group CEO of Jamaican Teas, in his usually accommodative way, was welcoming when this reporter told him that the story of his company is one I want to tell. Mahfood, for the most part, needs little invitation to tell the story.

“It started in 1967, with a company called Tetley Tea,” Mahfood recounts as he went beyond the genesis of Jamaican Teas to the start of the company that would eventually become his own. Tetley Tea is a company that was started in Yorkshire in the United Kingdom in 1837, when brothers, Joseph and Edward Tetley started a company to sell salt and added tea to the mix a few years after. They introduced tea bags to Britain in 1953 after seeing it in the United States in 1939. The concept of tea bags was, however, itself an accidental discovery in 1909 when a New York merchant called Thomas Sullivan sent out samples of tea in small silken bags. Some customers put the whole bag in the pot to brew the tea — and it worked.

A decade later in the 1960s when the Jamaican Government was encouraging foreign companies to set up manufacturing businesses in Jamaica, Tetley Tea was one of the companies which took up the offer, especially given that the incentives to set up locally included “allowing them to have, basically a monopoly,” according to Mahfood.

“If you had set up a factory in Jamaica in the 60s, nobody could import that item into Jamaica.” That Mahfood argued was the genesis not only of Tetley in Jamaica, but also of many other manufacturing companies such as Goodyear, Nestle, Carreras, Gillette, Ricketts and Coleman, etc.

“Hundreds of companies were started at that time and it grew to the point where manufacturing in Jamaica was a very big part of our GDP (gross domestic product), 20 per cent, it had reached at one time,” the Jamaican Teas CEO continued.

Mahfood said these companies flourished until the late 80s into the early 90s when “the Government was forced to change that regime by international lending agenices to open the economy up to competition. And that created a disaster, because the decision to do that was an overnight decision. The manufacturing companies in Jamaica were not prepared for international competition and neither were they exporting. They only supplied their goods to the local market and as a result of that, they were not efficient, they were charging too much and making good profit, so they did not have that incentive to export. And so when all of these companies faced international competition overnight, they mostly went by the wayside,” he recalled.

During that period, very few companies survived. Tetley, which dominated the tea market in Jamaica at that time, was one of those which were badly impacted.

“In 1996, my father and I had the opportunity to buy the company and at that time it was very small. It had one tea packing machine and it was faced with international competition and so on. However, my vision was that, we would launch a new line of teas that were herbal teas based on the ‘bush tea’ on which Jamaicans grew up. So we launched our peppermint and ginger and cerassie and bissy and all of those teas we launched them in a tea bag and that had not happened before anywhere.” Jamaican Teas markets its products under the Caribbean Dreams label.

“The other thing we said we would do is to focus on exporting. At first it was difficult to introduce people to these teas, because number one, they weren’t accustomed to buying them in a supermarket, and number two, there is nothing better than a freshly picked peppermint. The dried peppermint leave, crushed and put in a tea bag is not as nice as the fresh thing and that was a bit of the challenge. But over time, people became accustomed to it and they liked the convenience,” he said.

But at the time the company was bought in 1996, its size meant Mahfood and his father could not depend on it. The son took a job at GraceKennedy in that same year, leaving the management of the business to his father.

“I joined GraceKennedy in 1996 at the same time that we bought the company and my father ran the business from 1996 to about 2007. I left GraceKennedy in 2006. From 2006 onwards we were together. My first responsibility at GraceKennedy was exports. I was responsible for GraceKennedy’s export business and that is what drove my experience and desire to focus on exporting and the fact that when I was at GraceKennedy, we would try to develop the export business for the factories that GraceKennedy owns,” he said.

But despite his experience, Mahfood said things were tough when he joined the company with his father.

“The first few years was focused on building the export of the Tetley brand and that went slowly, because Jamaica was the only place that Tetley had set up a factory and they didn’t sell the tea in other markets so we decided to go after the export market. We developed the Caribbean Dreams brand and herbal teas a few years after.”

“At first we tried to source the raw materials locally, the peppermint and the ginger and so on and for the first few years we really struggled to grow because we could not get enough raw materials from local farmers. The turning point was when we were able to import these items and made them readily available. Up to that time, when we were relying on local suppliers only. But with imported raw materials we expanded rapidly.”

Mahfood said he was conflicted in moving to import raw materials, preferring initially to work with local farmers. “But after two or three years we weren’t making any progress in getting the growth in the ginger and the peppermint supply. So we made the decision to import it and if we get it locally, we will buy it locally as well. It isn’t an issue of price, but availability. We still buy a lot of our products locally, like lemongrass, cerassie, bissy and moringa, but the products that are in big supply that are produced in overseas farms on large acreage are the peppermint farms and the ginger.”

Having overcome those challenges though, the company was set on a growth path. The small factory which once produced Tetley Tea was not enough and a new location was found in central Kingston. That space was outgrown and the company moved to the industrial belt around the Three Miles area in southern St Andrew in 2014. “We are now outgrowing that and now about to expand more in terms of products and technology and so I expect that within another year or two, providing that the economy remains robust, we will be stepping up in a new facility.”

Mahfood looks back with pride having overcome the challenge of size. He recalls a time when the company “couldn’t make up a container load to sell to people in the Caribbean — Barbados and Trinidad.” Another challenge he pointed to was getting people to try the products, and how to get them to the customers. “We had to travel the marketplace and in addition to that, we had to send the products by air because at the time, there was no provision for break bulk and little by little, the market started to be interested in our products and the sales grew and at some point, each of the countries got to a point where they could take container loads and that kept us price competitive.”

From that, the company now exports 65 per cent of its output. In 1996, there were six employees, now there are 80.

“We have added a line of soups and seasonings which we export along with the teas. We also have contract manufacturers that we work with locally to make other products including pasta, which we export, chocolate-based products which we export and recently we added macaroni and cheese and others. Most of these are from other Jamaican companies that maybe haven’t been exporting their products but have good products which are competitive, so we have added these to our lines under our brand name — Caribbean Dreams.

The company has since then expanded from just teas. It now owns a supermarket in Kingston and an investement company, QWI, while also playing a part in the real estate sector.

As for the tea business, “It now does about US$12 million in sales and my vision is to get that significantly higher in the next five years, at least US$30 million to US$40 million in sales by growing our export business, by increasing our product range, by getting more into online selling where I think that even small manufacturers in the Caribbean have a chance to showcase their products on the international stage and since COVID, a lot more people are shopping online and want that convenience and that variety that comes with online shopping,” Mahfood outlined.

The company still produces Tetley tea under a licence arrangement for the Caribbean and Jamaica. The Tetley brand itself is now owned by Mumbai, India-based Tata Consumer Products.

With a hint of pride, Mahfood explained the importance of building a brand. “In the early days, when we did consumer surveys, we found very low recognition of our Caribbean Dreams brand, but over 10 to 20 years as we continue to market and promote the brand, that recognition grows and eventually it has a lot of value.”

Wise words to brew.

Employees at Jamaican Teas packing the company’s dried soup mixes for export. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Cerassie is one of the various herbal teas which are packaged in tea bags by Jamaican Teas for the local and export markets. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
An employee of Jamaican Teas inspects goods in the company's warehouse that have been packed for export. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Lemon grass tea bags on the production line at Jamaican Teas. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Employees pack Tetley Tea which Jamaican Teas continue to produce under licence for the Caribbean. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Jamaican Teas delivery truck at its location in Three Miles, St Andrew being loaded for the market with various products under the Caribbean Dreams label. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
The Caribbean Sunshine soup produced by Jamaican Teas. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Jamaican Teas is looking to at least triple its earnings in the next five years. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Caribbean Dreams lemon grass herbal tea produced by Jamaican Teas being packed for the market. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Various soup mixes produced by Jamaican Teas. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Dashan Hendricks

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